Research on meditation has shown that an immediate reduction in stress and anxiety can be had, in addition to lower blood pressure and increased overall happiness. These are great reasons to start meditating now, but continued exploration of the practice has revealed that it could also add years to our lives, and improve our lives as we age.
Scientists have known for awhile that shorter telomeres are an indication of aging. These are protective protein caps at the end of DNA strands. It has been found that each time a cell replicates, the telomeres become shorter.
Telomerase is a natural enzyme that prevents this shortening. This enzyme can even add length back onto a shortened telomere, allowing that particular cell to love longer.
This shortening happens as a natural process of aging, but it can be accelerated by stress, which in turn speeds up the aging process. Shorter telomere length is therefore linked with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, poor immune system functioning, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Elissa Epel, PhD, professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco.
In 2004, she and a team of researchers concluded that stress was a significant corollary to shorter telomere length in certain disease-fighting antibodies in humans. They were studying mothers with chronically ill children compared to mothers with normal healthy children. The first group, naturally with a higher stress level, had significantly shorter telomere length than the control group.
Here’s where meditation comes back in: a striking unexpected finding by the researchers was that perceived stress was also significantly correlated with shorter telomere length. It was found that the women in the study who perceived their stress levels as high had short telomere length equivalent of one decade of aging over the lower stress women.
This led Epel to conclude that mindfulness meditation may have positive effects on the length of telomeres, due to the practice’s potential to reduce stress and the mind’s tendency to dwell.
Elizabeth Hoge, M.D. of Harvard Medical School continued to carry this torch in 2013, when she studied telomere length as it relates to the practice of a loving kindness mediation vs non-meditators. It was found that telomere length was positively correlated with more years of meditation experience. These findings lent additional support to Epel’s hypothesis that meditation can have a profound effect on cellular aging.
In addition, a growing trend in research is finding that we can slow the degeneration of brain matter that naturally occurs with age through meditation. A study by Massachusetts General Hospital in conjunction with Harvard Medical School in 2000 measured thickness of white and grey matter in the brain using MRI data on meditators and non-meditators of all ages.
This study found that cortical thickness in middle aged meditators was comparable to that of non-meditators decades younger. The researchers concluded that meditation can actually preserve brain matter as we age.
Lastly, a study in 2014 by Eileen Luders, PhD, professor of neurology at UCLA, looked at the volume of white matter in 20 areas of the brain.
Luder’s team found that white matter definitely lowered with age, but that the age-related degeneration was less extreme in meditators compared to those that did not. Research by this team further delving into questions related to meditation and aging are underway.
These studies conclude that our old thinking about the inevitability of aging may be flawed. By practicing meditation and mindfulness, we might actually preserve our brains and bodies more than previously thought as we age more gracefully than generations prior.