In T.H. White's famous telling of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, the wizard Merlin, after aging forward for half his life, begins to age backward again. Science may have discovered the Merlin Effect. Dean Ornish, the same researcher who previously showed that a low fat vegetarian diet, exercise and stress reduction can actually reverse atherosclerosis (Lancet 1990;336:129-33) has now shown that a similar program can actually reverse the process of aging. . . .

The leading theory of aging is the telomere shortening theory. Telomeres (Greek for the part at the end) are protective DNA and protein complexes that cap the end of chromosomes and help them to remain stable. But each time a cell replicates, the telomere gets shorter. So telomeres are like shortening timelines that measure cellular age. Telomere shortening weakens proper replication of DNA, which results in cellular aging. Telomere shortness is a marker of aging, disease and premature death. So preserving the length of your telomeres is the key to longevity. Lengthening them would be even better.

Ornish's study included thirty-five men with prostate cancer. The study compared men who made comprehensive lifestyle changes with a control group who did not. The study lasted five years.

Though the lifestyle changes were comprehensive, they were not hard to do. They are the sort of healthy changes that we all should be making anyway. The lifestyle change group followed a low fat vegetarian diet that was high in whole foods, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains and legumes and low in fat and refined carbohydrates. They also walked for half an hour six days a week, did some kind of stress management and increased their social support.

At the end of the five year study, telomere length had continued to shorten in the control group. That is not surprising because they had cancer and had contiunued to age. What is surprising is that telomere length in the lifestyle change group not only did not shorten, it got longer, and the difference was significant. And the more lifestyle changes the men made, the more the telomeres lengthened. In the control group, telomere length shortened in 64% of the men; in the lifestyle changes group, telomere length shortened in only 30%.

This is the first time ever that it has been shown to be possible to actually lengthen telomeres in a controlled study.

Previous studies have suggested that smoking, processed meat and being overweight are associated with shorter telomere length. Vitamins C, D and E, multivitamin/minerals and omega-3 essential fatty acids have all been shown to possibly lengthen telomeres, as has reducing stress, cortisol, dietary fat and sugar.

A recent study showed that curcumin, the active ingredient in the herb turmeric, increased telomerase in brain cells in an in vitro study (PLoS One 2014;9:e101251). Telomerase is an enzyme which may counteract telomere shortening.

This potentially groundbreaking study shows that a vegetarian diet, combined with moderate exercise and stress management may actually decrease disease and increase lifespan by positively affecting the aging process.

Lancet Oncology 2013;14:1112-20

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