The Science of Meditation's Effects on Aging

12/08/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated Dec 08, 2016
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By: Rina Deshpande

A growing body of research supports the immediate benefits of meditation, such as reduced stress and anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, and enhanced happiness. Studies on mindfulness interventions show these effects are common in as few as eight weeks. While these initial perks may be reason enough for us to practice, meditation's positive impact appears to be even more far-reaching, potentially adding years to our lives and improving cognitive function well into old age.

Meditation seems to affect longevity of the physical body in a few different ways, starting at the cellular level. Scientists have isolated length of telomeres and telomerase as indicators of cellular aging. Our cells contain chromosomes, or sequences of DNA. Telomeres are "protective protein caps" at the end of our DNA strands that allow for continued cell replication. The longer the telomere, the more times a cell can divide and refresh. Each time a cell replicates, its telomere length, and therefore its lifespan, gets shorter in a natural aging process.

Telomerase is an enzyme in the body that prevents telomere shortening and can even add telomeric DNA back to the telomere and help our body's cells live for a longer period of time.

How does this relate to length of human lifespan? Summarized by Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, shorter telomere length in cells is linked with poorer immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer's disease. The shorter the length of our telomeres, the more susceptible our cells are to dying and the more susceptible we are to disease, as we get older.

Telomere shortening happens naturally as we age, but research now shows that it can be accelerated by stress, speeding up the aging process of the body.

In 2004, Epel and her team found that that psychological stress is significantly correlated with shorter telomere length in leukocytes, antibody cells that fight disease. The study compared telomere length of premenopausal mothers caring for a chronically ill child and pre-identified to have higher objective stress to telomere length of mothers with a healthy child with lower objective stress. As predicted, the first group facing more environmental stress had significantly shorter telomere length and lower telomerase activity than the control group of mothers.

An even more striking finding was that high levels of perceived stress in both groups of women, regardless of circumstance and controlling for effects of the normal aging process, was also significantly associated with shorter telomere length and lower telomerase levels. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress in the study had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of one decade of additional aging compared to low-stress women. These results strongly suggest that both chronic environmental stress as well as perceived stress may induce premature aging.

Given that mindfulness practice has been historically connected to reduced ruminative thinking and stress, Epel's research team suggested in a 2009 follow-up paper that mindfulness meditation may also have potential positive effects on preservation of telomere length and telomerase activity.

In 2013, Elizabeth Hoge, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, investigated this idea by leading a study comparing telomere length of experienced loving-kindness meditation (LKM) practitioners with that of non-meditators. Results revealed that those with more years of meditation practice had longer telomere length overall, and that women meditators had significantly longer telomeres as compared to women non-meditators. These findings further support meditation's positive effect on healthy cellular aging and provide fodder for future longitudinal research that could track change in telomere length over time.

Another way meditation may help slow aging is through its effects on the brain. Typically our brains' gray matter volume, which is made of brain cells and dendrites that give and receive signals at synapses to help us think and function, decreases beginning at age 30 at varying rates and locations, depending on the individual. Concurrently, we also begin to lose white matter volume in our brains, which is comprised of axons that carry the actual electric signals between dendrites in the brain.

A small but growing body of research indicates we may alter our individual brain structure through meditation and potentially slow structural degeneration. Meditation may capitalize on the brain's undying hunger to be preserved and thrive.

In a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in partnership with Harvard Medical School in 2000, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure cortical thickness of the brain's grey and white matter in practiced meditators and non-meditators of different ages. Results showed that the average cortical thickness of meditators ages 40 to 50 was comparable to those of meditators and non-meditators ages 20 to 30. Practicing meditation at this particular junction of life may therefore support preservation of brain structure over time.

In a 2014 study led by Eileen Luders, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at the University of California Los Angeles, researchers looked at the relationship between age and average white matter volume (axons carrying electrical signals) in 20 pre-selected fiber tracts of the brain. While white matter volume was typically lower the older a participant was, Luders' research team reported that age-related neural degeneration was "unequivocally" less prominent in meditators as compared to those who did not meditate in 17 out of the 20 analyzed tracts in the brain. This finding was significant enough to prompt further longitudinal research that might answer looming questions like how frequently one must meditate to replicate such results, and what kind of meditations might offer most age-related benefits, especially to prevent degenerative disease such as Alzheimer's.

While we might expect our bodies and brains to follow a shared trajectory of development and degeneration over time, by actively practicing strategies such as meditation, we might actually preserve and protect our physical body and brain structure to extend our golden years and shine even more brightly in old age.

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