Can meditation slow down ageing?

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The desire to prolong youth is one of the most powerful drivers in human beings. Modern science is showing that meditation may have anti-ageing effects on our cells. Here we take a look at how this takes place.

The ageing process: telomeres and telomerase activity

During our lifetime our cells continuously divide to produce new cells to help grow, repair and rejuvenate our bodies. Cellular ageing occurs when this division starts to slow down, and finally cells stop dividing altogether. One of the determinants of a cell’s lifespan is the telomere, which is a repetitive DNA region found at the end of chromosomes.

“Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, unless an enzyme called telomerase builds them back up. When telomeres get too short, a cell can no longer replicate, and ultimately dies.”[1]

The length of telomeres has become a marker to predict the state of cellular ageing. Shortened telomeres and reduced telomerase activity (the cellular enzyme primarily responsible for telomere length and maintenance) tend to predict a host of mental and physical health risks.

“People with shorter telomeres are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And they die younger.”[2]

Although telomeres shorten every time a cell divides, the activity of the enzyme telomerase can add DNA sequences back to the telomeres, thereby increasing their length and preserving healthy cell function. The less telomerase activity there is, the faster the ageing process.

Studies have linked higher levels of stress with lower telomerase activity and shorter telomeres: “Greater perceived stress, greater negative affect, and a number of stress-related cardiovascular risk factors (e.g., higher resting heart rate, elevated levels of stress hormones) are associated with lower telomerase activity (Epel et al., 2004, 2006).”[3]

Meditation linked to increases in telomerase activity

Meditation has been proven to reduce stress (read more on this here), so if higher stress levels are linked to decreased telomerase activity, one can see why meditation might increase telomerase activity as it reduces stress.

The University of California, Davis, has a Centre for Mind and Brain, which conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on the effects of meditation, named the Shamatha Project. 60 healthy participants were randomly assigned to either an intensive 3-month meditation retreat or a control group. In the retreat, both mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation were taught and practiced. Many physical and psychological indicators were considered to measure changes following the retreat.

One of the papers following the study looks specifically at the effect of meditation on telomerase activity on the immune cells. Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biology and physiology at UCSF, is a co-author of the paper. Blackburn shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for discovering telomeres and telomerase. The paper concluded:

“telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants (vs. controls) and that telomerase activity was related to meditation-induced changes in well-being.”

How meditation helps reduce ageing of cells

The study considered various measures of stress and of well-being to understand the potential causal connections regarding how meditation helps increase telomerase activity.

Meditation increased the quality of “mindfulness” in participants, which to some extent helped lower stress levels. However statistical analysis showed that the increased “mindfulness” is not what accounted for the increased telomerase activity.

One of the unique features of the study is that it measured “Purpose in life” as a measure of wellbeing. Previous research has found that those who have a greater sense of meaning in life, have lower perceived psychological stress. There is “…some evidence showing that when a negative circumstance is infused with an over-riding and positive meaning, psychological coping improves and physiological stress responses are more adaptive”.

Interestingly, the meditation retreat led to increases in the sense of Purpose of Life for participants, which significantly accounted for the reductions in stress levels. Analysis of the data also showed that the increased Purpose of life is what mediated for the higher levels of telomerase activity in the retreat group versus the control group.

Despite determining the correlation of the sense of wellbeing, stress levels and telomerase activity, the study did not conclusively determine causality. The results allow the following hypothesis:

The hypothesis as supported by the results, is that the meditation retreat led to increased telomerase activity primarily because participants developed a greater sense of purpose in life, which led to lower stress levels. Stress was also lowered to a lesser extent by higher levels of mindfulness following the retreat.

“Purpose in life” is one of the few indicators of wellbeing that for most people, has been shown to decline with age. Among the elderly, ”those who report greater purpose have increased longevity and decreased mortality.”

Among the increasing volume of studies measuring the effects of meditation, how it helps to increase a sense of meaning and purpose in life, will be one of the more fascinating areas to keep an eye on.

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[2] As above

[3] Tonya L. Jacobs, Elissa S. Epel, Jue Lin, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Owen M. Wolkowitz, David A. Bridwell, Anthony P. Zanesco, Stephen R. Aichele, Baljinder K. Sahdra, Katherine A. MacLean. Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediatorsPsychoneuroendocrinology, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010


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