The 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine and how our lifestyle can protect our genes
The 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine honored the discovery of an enzyme that
protects genes from aging. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Dr. Carol Greider Dr. Jack
Szostak discovered that chromosomes have features called telomeres at one tip.
These telomeres gradually shrink as time goes by, and when they are finally
consumed this results in the death of cells. However, simple lifestyle changes
can activate our telomeres!
Reduction in the size of a person's telomeres is among the most accurate indicators of his or her physiological age. It also indicates a risk of premature death by cancer or heart disease.
However, when they discovered telomeres, these researchers also discovered an enzyme called telomerase. Telomerase allows our cells to reconstruct part of these shrinking telomeres, so that their size reduces less rapidly. Several studies have shown that the more active this telomerase enzyme -- particularly within cells of the immune system -- the better the body is protected from the processes of aging that are associated with heart disease and several types of cancer.
A variety of ways to influence the activity of this remarkable enzyme, so as to help prevent and treat diseases linked to aging, are actively under study by the pharmaceutical industry. But it so happens that a few years ago Dr Blackburn participated in a study, published in The Lancet Oncology , which opens up a completely different possibility. She and Dr Dean Ornish, a specialist in Preventive Medicine who is also at the University of California, San Francisco, studied the impact of life-style change on the activity of telomerase in immune cells.
For three months Ornish followed up men who were carriers of slow-growing prostate cancer. In a three-day intensive seminar, these men were taught the importance of taking their health into their own hands. They learned to eat differently -- to avoid saturated fats, refined sugars and white flour, and to prefer an almost entirely vegetarian diet that was very rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits and starches based on whole-wheat flour. They learned to take moderate exercise, such as walking, for at least half an hour six times a week, and to manage their stress with relaxation methods such as yoga, breathing exercises or meditation, at least six days a week. They also received daily dietary supplements based on soy protein, fish oil, vitamin E, vitamin C and selenium.
After three months, these men who learned to take charge of their own health, saw a 30 percent increase in the activity of telomerase -- the enzyme which increases the life-span of chromosomes and cells.
This means that the choices that we make every day -- when we sit down to eat, when we walk to work, when we use breathing techniques to help manage our stress -- are actually acting on mechanisms deep within our cells that nourish and protect life.
So remember: every day, it's up to us to come to the aid of our telomerase.
1. Ornish, D., et al., Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. The Lancet Oncology, 2008: p. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70234-1.