The path to a long life may be as short as the walk to your refrigerator or the local gym. That’s the message from scientists who are working on the cutting edge of aging research. Focused on diseases such as dementia, cancer and heart disease, this area of study has uncovered clues to how certain nutrients and specific exercise regimens can change the biological destinies of your cells. “You can tip your odds in favor of aging well if you follow what we’re learning is the healthy way to live,” says Trygve Tollefsbol, PhD, a senior scientist with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Center for Healthy Aging. In other words: Because of these discoveries, you may be able to rewrite your medical future.
A new way of looking at genes
We all learned in high school (but may have forgotten) that DNA provides genetic blueprints for the production of proteins that carry out the functions of each cell. In a discovery with huge implications, scientists have uncovered an additional cellular system: the epigenome, a complex network of switches or tags that govern whether genes are turned on or off. “Your DNA is wound really tightly around one of these protein switches,” explains Emily Ho, PhD, a principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. The epigenome tags physically mark your DNA in a way that affects how your genes operate. For instance, cells in your skin, eyes, teeth and hair contain exactly the same DNA. But they produce different features because, under the influence of these tags, some genes are “expressed” and others are “silent.”
Epigenetic changes—this turning on and off of genes—tend to occur more often as we grow older. Many of these changes influence the development of some age-related diseases by, for example, promoting or halting the production of substances the body uses to combat cancerous cells.
While you can’t change your genes, you have a shot at controlling epigenetic events. “You may be able to undo a harmful epigenetic change with the right lifestyle choices,” Ho says.
The case for broccoli
One nutrient at the center of epigenetics research is sulforaphane, which is found in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage. Research at Oregon State and other academic labs has shown that sulforaphane inhibits a group of enzymes known as histone deacetylases (HDACs), which are involved in DNA wrapping and other tasks. Blocking HDACs can control inflammation and suppress tumor formation. In fact, a handful of cancer drugs already in human clinical trials use synthetic compounds to inhibit HDACs.
Emerging research suggests that a diet rich in broccoli and Brussels sprouts may help fend off cancer by reversing epigenetic events. In a 2007 study at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, eight healthy women on their way to breast-reduction surgery were fed an extract of filtered broccoli sprouts (very young broccoli plants that taste a bit like radishes). When researchers later examined the women’s excised breast tissue, they found high levels of a tumor-fighting enzyme related to sulforaphane.
More recently, Ho’s research has shown that broccoli sprouts contain more sulforaphane than mature plants do and are thus a potentially more effective food for staving off unwanted epigenetic changes. “One cup of these sprouts may provide the benefits of 50 cups of broccoli,” Ho says. Tollefsbol recommends eating a cup of broccoli sprouts every day. You can buy them at farmers’ markets and natural food stores. Eat them raw as a snack or in a salad or sandwich. They can also be cooked in stir-fries.