According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 20 million Americans practice some form of meditation to achieve greater peace of mind and enhanced sense of well-being. Now studies of the neurological differences between meditators and non-meditators, and studies of immune cell aging via telomere length in meditators and non-meditators, show that meditation can also affect the way we age.
UCLA neuroscientist Eileen Luders in 2013 reviewed the results of three brain-imaging studies designed to detect brain-aging differences between meditators and non-meditators. The meditators in these studies had for two to 35 years practiced Vipassana, Zen or Shamatha meditation. These methods all include an emphasis on mindfulness—the ability to remain focused on the present moment.
Previous studies have demonstrated a wide variety of benefits for mindfulness practice, from reducing the suffering associated with pain or the likelihood of relapse in depressive illness, to improving brain and immune system function.
Ordinarily, the human brain shrinks an average of 5 percent per decade after age 40, but in the studies Luders reviewed, the meditators show less an age-related decline in the thickness of their brain’s cerebral cortexes, the volume of their brain gray matter (neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, and synapses) and the density and functionality of their brain white matter (axonal tracts connecting different regions of the brain).
By using telomere length as a biomarker for cellular aging, we can detect the impact of meditation and mindfulness on the aging process at the cellular level. Telomeres are repetitive nucleotide segments at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with age and stress. Telomere shortness is associated with disease and mortality; when they become too short, cells lose their ability to divide and replicate and become susceptible to fusions, senescence and apoptosis. The tendency of telomeres to shorten over time is offset to some degree by telomerase, an enzyme that helps to rebuild telomeres by adding new repetitive nucleotide sequences to the ends of the chromosomes.
Ellissa Epel and colleagues at the University of California San Francisco in 2009 outlined the mediating pathways through which mindfulness affects a variety of psychological processes—appraisal of threats, rumination, metacognitive awareness and positive emotionality—which in turn affect biological processes like the HPA axis, the autonomic nervous system and oxidative stress, all of which exert their own influence on telomere shortening and telomerase rebuilding. In a 2013 study, the research team found that women who tended to focus on the present moment, as opposed to allowing their minds to wander, had longer telomeres. When one compared the women with the highest degree of mind wandering to those with the lowest degree of mind wandering, mind wandering added an additional four to five years to their cellular age, a remarkable finding given the narrow age range and relatively low stress level of the women in their sample.
While Epel’s team explored naturally occurring differences in individual disposition toward mindfulness, in 2013 Harvard psychiatrist Elizabeth Hoge led a research team that studied the impact of loving-kindness meditation on telomere length. In loving-kindness meditation, meditators direct wishes for health, happiness and well-being toward themselves and others, but the technique also requires a certain degree of sustained mental focus and mindfulness. Hoge’s research showed that female loving-kindness meditators have relatively longer telomeres than female non-meditators. They observed a similar trend for male and female meditators together, which did not reach statistical significance.
Collectively, these studies point to the possibility that meditation may be able to slow, stall or even reverse age-related declines at the neurological and chromosomal level. Given the relative non-invasiveness, low expense and low-risk profile of meditative techniques as opposed to other interventions, this is an exciting prospect for future exploration into the process of human aging.