Mediterranean Diet May Slow Aging Process Dramatically

Telomeres have become something of a buzz word for anti-aging researchers in recent years due to their perceived role in the aging process. Now, antioxidant-rich diets have also been found to have a significant  role in promoting or slowing the aging process because they have a beneficial effect on many of the body’s systems. A new study published in The BMJ  has put the Mediterranean diet and telomere length together, suggesting that it may be the best way to eat for those who want to stay looking and feeling young. The Mediterranean way of eating, which has been celebrated by nutritionists and doctors over the past two decades for numerous health benefits, has now been shown to increase telomere length, and therefore, theoretically, promote a slower rate of aging.

Telomeres are the end parts of chromosomes. An often used but still suitable analogy for a telomere is the cap on the end of a shoelace. In the same way the shoelace cap stops the fabric of the lace from becoming frayed and unusable, the telomere prevents chromosomes from becoming frayed, and in doing so, keeps the genetic codes contained within them in better shape.

As people age, telomere lengths gets progressively shorter and there is currently no known way to stop that natural process from happening. However, it has been noted that some people’s telomeres shorten faster than others. By middle age, the average person’s telomere length will be half as long that it was the day they were born. In old age, it will have been halved again. The shorter a person’s telomeres, the higher the risk of age related diseases and the lower the expected lifespan. For this reason, telomeres are of great interest to those in the field of anti-aging.

There are certainly activities that are associated with an accelerated shortening of telomeres. Cigarette smoking, a diet high in sugar and artificially sweetened drinks, obesity and other lifestyle factors are all things that have been correlated with a reduction in telomere length. Studies have shown that when compared to a matched control with a “healthier” lifestyle, people who opt to eat more sugar have relatively less length in the caps at the end of their chromosomes, indicating that they are likely to age faster. The same is true for people who experience oxidative stress and inflammation.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the consumption of fruit, vegetables, nuts and unrefined grains. It is low in saturated fats and includes a lot of natural oils and oily fish. These are foods that are naturally high in antioxidants and are renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it unsurprising that the Mediterranean way of eating has been shown to promote longer telomere length in those who choose it,  according to research by Immaculata De Vivo, Associate Professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and her team.

De Vivo’s team looked at data from 4,676 middle-aged females taken from the Nurses’ Health Study, which has been tracking the lifestyles of more than 120,000 nurses in the United States since 1976. The nurses were given blood tests so that the length of their telomeres could be recorded, and asked to complete very detailed diet questionnaires.

Due to the high levels of antioxidants contained in Red Wine, it is considered a healthy addition to the Mediterranean diet when drunk in small to moderate quantities.
Due to the high levels of antioxidants contained in red wine, it is considered a healthy addition to the Mediterranean diet when consumed in small to moderate quantities.

Even after the data was adjusted for other lifestyle factors that could have an influence on telomere shortening, it was clear that the women who ate a diet close to the Mediterranean had significantly longer telomeres. The authors noted that it was not possible to isolate a single component of diet and show that it had an influence on telomeres so, for example, simply increasing whole grains, or increasing the amount of vegetables eaten was not associated with a slower rate of telomere decline.

Rather, it is the Mediterranean diet as a whole dietary pattern is what seemed to positively influence health. In other words, a healthy diet has to be all encompassing in order to potentially have anti-aging properties.

Professor Peter Nilsson from Lund University in Sweden wrote an editorial to accompany the study. Nilsson described the Mediterranean diet as a “cornerstone of dietary advice” as far as preventing heart disease is concerned. He says that the discovery that this healthy way of eating also has anti-aging properties is reassuring for those who have been long-term proponents of it.

Nilsson also points out that this study is limited to a group of professional women in the United States, and that this means there may also genetic implications. This is a very valid point because, while the lifestyle factors of those with longer telomeres indicate at first glance a large degree of environmental influence, it cannot be ruled out that there is a genetic factor at work when it comes to lifestyle choices such as food preferences. Genetic and cultural influences may have some influence on the foods that a person chooses to eat so, while this study appears to show that there are lifestyle choices involved, longevity may come down to genetics after all.

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