NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Comprehensive healthy lifestyle changes substantially increase telomerase activity, and hence telomere maintenance capacity, in as little as 3 months, according to results of a prospective pilot study published online September 16 by The Lancet Oncology.

“Telomere shortness in humans is emerging as a prognostic marker of disease risk, progression, and premature mortality,” the investigators write. Fully functioning telomerase, they note, “preserves not only telomere length, but also healthy cell function and long-term immune function,” and is inversely associated with major cardiovascular disease risk factors.

In June, Dr. Dean Ornish and co-investigators at the University of California, San Francisco, and at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, reported initial results of the Gene Expression Modulation by Intervention with Nutrition and Lifestyle (GEMINAL) study. The intervention involved improved nutrition, moderate exercise, stress management, and increased social support.

They found that the 3-month intervention among 30 patients with low-risk prostate cancer altered gene expression in healthy prostate tissue. Specifically, expression of genes involved in tumorigenesis was down-regulated.

For their current report, the research team compared telomerase activity per viable cell in peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) samples from 24 members of the GEMINAL study cohort at baseline and at 3 months.

Mean PBMC telomerase activity expressed as natural logarithms increased from 2.00 to 2.22, and raw values of telomerase increased from 8.05 to 10.38 standard arbitrary units.

Increases in telomerase activity were significantly associated with decreases in LDL cholesterol and decreases in psychological distress as assessed by use of the Impact of Event Scale.

“Increasing telomerase activity in healthy PBMCs as a result of comprehensive lifestyle changes might have important clinical relevance,” Dr. Ornish and his associates write. For one thing, “this might be a powerful motivator for many people to beneficially change their diet and lifestyle.”

Research is now needed, they say, to determine if increases in telomerase activity and telomere length translate into increased life span and reduced incidence or severity of chronic diseases and cancer.

Lancet Oncology 2008.