Philippa Taylor

It’s common sense, but the best studies usually are

Philippa Taylor was Head of Public Policy at CMF until September 2019 and now works with CARE. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

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A new five year study shows for the first time that changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support results can significantly slow ageing.

Researchers followed 35 men with early-stage prostate cancer for a five year period and found that certain changes to lifestyle had a significant effect of lengthening their telomeres, the parts of chromosomes that affect ageing. Further, the more the men changed their behavior by adhering to the recommended lifestyle program, the more dramatic their improvements in telomere length.

The study has been published online in The Lancet Oncology. It is the first controlled trial to show that any intervention might lengthen telomeres over time.

The lead author of this new research saidSo often people think “Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it”… But these findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live. Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life.’

Another co-author similarly said: ‘Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases…We believe that increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and perhaps even lengthen lifespan.’

As telomeres become shorter, and as they weaken, the cells age and die more quickly. Shorter telomeres are associated with ageing-related diseases, including many forms of cancer, stroke, dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.

Ten of the patients studied made lifestyle changes that included: a plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates); moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week); stress reduction (gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation). They also participated in weekly group support.

In this new Lancet Oncology study, the ten men who made healthy lifestyle changes were compared to the other 25 study participants who did not make major lifestyle changes. These had measurably shorter telomeres – nearly 3% shorter – when the five-year study ended, compared to the 10% increase in telomere length for the former ten. (Telomere length usually decreases over time).

Of course none of this should be a surprise. It is common sense. But there is no harm in being reminded of the impact that diet, exercise and lifestyle has on health….and wealth.

Other costs

According to a series of articles published a few years ago in The Lancet, there will be 11 million more obese adults by 2030, with medical costs onhealthy glucophage directly associated with obesity-related disease treatment rising by almost £2bn per year. Not to mention a corresponding increase in additional cases of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Effective policies to promote healthier weight also have economic benefits.

If that were not of enough concern, a Swedish study found that middle aged people who are overweight (but not obese), are 71% more likely to develop dementia than those with a normal weight. This robust study adds to the large body of evidence which suggests that if you pile on the pounds in middle age, your chances of developing dementia later in life are also increased.

The unsurprising, common sense conclusion of the researchers: ‘By eating healthily and exercising regularly, you can lessen your risk of developing dementia.’

What should Christians think about this?

CMF member, Mark Daly, wrote about the problems of obesity from a medical and Christian perspective in Triple Helix a few years ago. As he rightly comments, obesity is often tied to both low self-esteem and poverty.

But he does not absolve Christians of their responsibility for themselves and others.

He says that obesity in a world where people still suffer from hunger and scarce resources is wrong because:

  • It damages the individual
  • It reflects a waste of food and money
  • The consumption of pre-processed food requires a higher level of energy consumption (production and transport) and implies neglect of our duty as stewards of the earth

The Bible tells us that physical training is of some value (although godliness is of far greater value) and we are not to join others who ‘gorge themselves on meat’. The ability to say ‘no’ to anything in excess – self-control – is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

In a society where we are surrounded by an excess of processed, high sugar, fat laden, often cheap, fibreless food, promoted and on display everywhere in order to tempt us to eat in excess, it is hard to say ‘no’. But Christ calls us to live to higher standards, and he gives us the means to achieve them.  We also have an abundance of wonderful, healthy, nutritious foods easily available to us here in the West, and we have legs designed for walking (or running or cycling!).

And, of course, the benefits of exercising both our self-control and our bodies could be a longer life and more fruitful service!

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy



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