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By Karen Alexander, Oncology Wellness Specialist


How Healthy Living Benefits Your DNA

For many of us, the New Year presents new opportunities to improve our quality of life. Forty-five percent of Americans will make resolutions in 2015 in hopes of working towards a longer and happier life. 

The relationship between healthy lifestyle choices and chronic disease prevention is well-known. Moreover, recent studies have linked poor lifestyle choices with genetic aging due to telomere unraveling. 

Telomeres are the protective units of DNA that cap and protect the ends of genetic material in cells. They can be affected by genetic factors—which cannot be controlled and often increase with age—but they may also unravel or shorten because of chronic stress and unhealthy behaviors. 

Recent studies revealed that telomeres are shorter in smokers, avid soda drinkers, and those living with chronic stress, sleep deprivation, and sedentary behaviors. In fact, shorter telomeres are commonly associated with increased risk of disease and a shorter lifespan. When telomeres unravel, this stops their host cells from reproducing, which may lead to conditions like dementia, osteoporosis, and chronic inflammation.

However, a study published in 2014 proved that healthy lifestyle behaviors, including a balanced diet, regular exercise and sleep, appeared to protect telomeres from damage caused by stress. This is an important finding because it could help us understand the potential influence we have on our overall genetic health.

As these studies demonstrate, a person’s lifestyle can have a noticeable impact on the aging of his or her DNA. While positive lifestyle choices cannot reverse the process of aging, they can make aging more comfortable, enjoyable, and possibly help increase one’s lifespan.

With that in mind, here are some New Year’s resolutions that could benefit you and your DNA:

  1. Avoid tobacco and limit alcohol consumption.
  2. Exercise for at least thirty minutes three times a week. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, but I encourage you to start small. For instance, take a thirty-minute walk after dinner. 
  3. Sleep at least seven hours. It is recommended that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
  4. Plan your meals in advance. You are less likely to go through the drive-thru if you have a pre-planned meal waiting at home.
  5. Limit your consumption of starches, such as potatoes, stuffing, and rolls. Fill your plate with vegetables instead.
  6. Choose cooking methods that are low in fat, such as roasting, grilling, and steaming.
  7. Limit high-calorie foods and avoid sugary drinks like soda.
  8. Limit your intake of salt, red meat, and processed meat, such as fast food burgers or packaged turkey.
  9. Use smaller plates and bowls to encourage portion control.
  10. Limit unnecessary calories, such as gravies, sour cream, and whipped cream. 


Karen Ambrosio is an oncology dietitian and wellness specialist at Ackerman Cancer Center. She holds a Master's in Clinical Nutrition, as well as certifications in enteral, parenteral, and oncological nutrition.

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