It may seem unlikely, but a small and growing body of proof is recommended that regular meditation can indeed slow ageing, as least at a cellular level
Do people who meditate age more slowly? It seems unlikely on the face of it. How could sitting immobile with ones eyes closed, perhaps focusing on the breath, maybe keep the Grim Reaper at bay? That said, the Buddha surely the archetypal meditator is reputed to have lived to 80, which must have been an exceptionally ripe old age in 5th century BCE India. And according to Buddhist scriptures, even after 80 years in this realm of existence, in the end it wasnt old age that finished him off but food poisoning.
Two and a half millennia later there is a small but growing body of evidence that regular meditation truly can slacken ageing at least at the cellular level. A commonly used proxy for cellular ageing is the length of telomeres, the DNA and protein caps that protect the ends of each chromosome during cell division. These abbreviate somewhat every time the chromosome replicates, until eventually the cell can no longer divide, becoming senescent or undergoing apoptosis the cellular equivalent of suicide. Having shorter telomeres in your cells is associated with the onset of many age-related illness, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, form 2 diabetes and dementia. Several lifestyle factors have been found to accelerate telomere abbreviating, such as poor diet, absence of sleep, smoking, drinking and a sedentary lifestyle.
Chronic stress is also known to accelerate the abbreviate of telomeres. A study published last month found that long-term meditators had a reduced inflammatory and stress response to psychological and chemical stressors in the lab compared with a control group. By countering the effects of stress, could meditation also indirectly slow cellular ageing? An older analyze found increased telomere length in the immune cells of people after they took part in an intense meditation retreat. Another revealed increased activity of an enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds telomeres, after a similar retreat.
Now a study by Spanish researchers suggests that highly experienced Zen meditators have longer telomeres on average than people of a similar age and lifestyle. The research also hints that the psychological factors underpinning this beneficial consequence were that the meditators had a more compassionate, accepting outlook on life.
Scientists at the University of Zaragoza compared 20 people who had been practising Zen meditation for an hour or more a day for at least 10 years with 20 people who had never meditated, matched for age, sex and lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking, drinking and exert. All of them were subjected to a battery of psychological testing and gave blood samples so that the length of telomeres in their immune cells could be measured.
When the researchers crunched the data they found that the meditators telomeres were significantly longer than those of the controls, by an average of 10%. They then used a statistical technique called regression analysis to get an idea which factors might be immediately responsible for this apparent slacken of cellular ageing. Many psychological traits were associated with having longer telomeres, including greater mindfulness abilities, life gratification and subjective happiness. But the statistical analysis suggested that only younger age, low experiential avoidance and high self-compassion were immediately responsible for longer telomeres.
Experiential avoidance is the natural propensity to suppress painful memories, believes, emotions and sensations in an effort to gain temporary relief from psychological discomfort. In fact, this mental shying away seems to cause greater problems for us in the long-run. By contrast, mindfulness both in its original Buddhist context and in modern therapeutic programmes designed to treating conditions such as chronic pain, depression and drug addiction involves turning ones attention towards unpleasant physical and mental experiences in a spirit of nonjudgmental acceptance. So its particularly interesting that the Spanish analyze found that experiential avoidance apparently leads to faster abbreviate of telomeres.
So can we add meditation to the listing of lifestyle changes, alongside giving up smoking, exercising more and drinking less, that can lead to a longer, healthier life? Its worth borne in mind that this study only measured cellular ageing. And it was a very small analyze, with only 40 participants in total, which restriction the conclusions that they are able reliably to be withdrawn. The meditators were also exceptionally experienced, having clocked up at least a decade of practice. Ideally, a future analyze should randomly assign a much greater number of people who have never meditated either to a meditation program or an equivalent activity, such as relaxation develop, and compare the effects on telomere length over a much shorter period perhaps just a few months.
Theres cause for optimism, though, that even novices can start protecting their telomeres from the ravages of time and cell division. A study published in 2013 found that just 15 minutes meditation in novices had immediate effects on the expression of many genes, for example increasing the activity of the gene that stimulates telomerase and reducing the activity of genes to participate in inflammatory and stress responses. Its astounding what sitting still with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath can do for your cells.
James Kingsland is the author of Siddharthas Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Englightenment, which will be published on 26 April in the US and 2 June in the UK
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