Periods of fasting or starvation may significantly shorten the lifespan of children and their male descendants, a new study has found. The study focused on survivors of a mass famine that took place in the early 1920s in several rural regions of Russia.
“A variety of experimental and epidemiological studies have tried to propose that intermittent or periodic fasting, like caloric restriction, may slow the aging process and extend lifespans,” said Eugene Kobyliansky of Tel Aviv University (TAU)’s Sackler School of Medicine in the US.
“But there is also evidence demonstrating that even moderate caloric restriction may not extend but, on the contrary, can shorten the human lifespan,” he said. Past research suggests a strong correlation between telomere dynamics and the processes that determine human ageing and lifespan.
Telomeres, compound structures at the end of each chromosome that protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration, are the genetic key to longevity. They shorten with every chromosome replication cycle.
The team evaluated telomere lengths in a population-based sample comprised of survivors of the mass famine of the early 1920s and in the survivors’ descendants, who originated from Chuvashia, a rural area in the mid-Volga region of Russia.
In Chuvashia, the proportion of starving inhabitants reached 90 per cent in late March 1922, and mortality among starving peasants reached between 30-50 per cent. The situation only began to improve in April 1923. By the end of that year, the mass famine in Chuvashia was considered over.
The researchers arrived at three major discoveries. They found that there were shorter leukocyte telomeres in men born after 1923 after the mass famine ended than in men born before 1922. They also found that there was a stable inheritance of shorter telomeres by men born in ensuing generations.
There was an absence of any correlation between shorter telomeres and women born before or after the event, researchers said. The study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.