Bariatric Surgery Slows Aging on the Cellular Level

Studies have shown that losing weight helps preserve a cellular aging marker called a telomere. Telomeres cap the ends of our chromosomes, keeping them from deteriorating as we age.

New research has now replicated those results in patients who've had weight-loss surgery, showing that they can enjoy the same health benefits as those who don’t go under the knife to shed pounds.

John Morton, a Stanford University researcher, found that weight loss after bariatric surgery increased the length of a person's telomeres.

He studied 51 obese patients who underwent bariatric surgery. One year after their procedure, the patients demonstrated a 71 percent reduction in weight, as well as lower levels of fasting insulin and C-reactive protein (CRP), which signals inflammation.

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The biggest changes in telomere length were seen in patients who had higher levels of CRP and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or "bad" cholesterol. Morton also linked longer telomeres to weight loss and levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or "good" cholesterol.

“This unique study demonstrates that surgically induced weight loss is able to reverse a marker of aging, telomere length,” Morton said. “Past research has shown a tie between telomere length following weight loss through diet and exercise, but not through bariatric surgery.”

Bruce Wolfe, a professor of surgery and co-director of bariatric surgery at Oregon Health and Science University, said the results will help people understand the role telomeres play in aging and disease, as well as the long-term benefits of bariatric surgery.

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How Telomeres Affect Aging

Morton explained that telomeres protect chromosomes and their genetic information. Telomeres are like the cap, or aglet, on the end of a shoelace that keeps it from fraying.

Shorter telomeres are associated with aging and age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, as well as a shorter lifespan. Short telomeres are also associated with being overweight, having a higher body mass index (BMI) score, and visceral fat accumulation. 

Morton assessed the patients six months after their surgeries and made the discovery that weight loss—however it is achieved—could reverse telomere deterioration.

“It didn’t take long to reverse it,” Morton said. 

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Weight Loss Yields Positive Change at Any Age

Some patients in the study had higher-than-normal levels of inflammation and cholesterol—the ones who benefitted most from weight loss surgery—but Morton said a person at a normal weight could have these same high levels. Maintaining a healthy weight also prevents the body from aging prematurely, he added.

“It’s never too late when it comes to doing some changes with your weight,” added Morton, whose work was presented at this week’s ObesityWeek conference.

In related news, a 2012 study also highlighted at the conference showed that the average obese adult pays an average of $2,714 more each year in health care costs. The study, published in the Journal of Health Economics, found that medically supervised weight loss lowered medication costs by up to $215 a month for diabetics. 

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