Live Long and Thrive: How Mindfulness Slows the Aging Process

May 21st, 2012 by

Are you interested in something you can do for yourself to slow the aging process, and enhance the quality and length of your life? Then you’ll be interested in the emerging body of scientific research on stress, aging, and mindfulness, a practice correlated with a protective effect on our cells. By taking up a regular mindfulness practice you can improve your well-being, slow the aging process, and help protect yourself against the most common diseases of aging.

Chromosomes 101

At the heart of this story are chromosomes – the bundles of DNA in each of our cells – especially the tips, or end caps, of chromosomes called “telomeres”. Telomeres are like the protective ends on shoelaces that keep them from fraying.  Telomeres are necessary for a cell to divide in a healthy way. Each time a normal cell divides, the telomeres become shorter and shorter. Ultimately, the cell’s telomeres become so short it can no longer divide. The result is that the cell dies. Historically this shortening of telomeres was thought to be a one-way street: shorter telomeres meant the aging and death of cells, and eventually the living thing made up of these cells.

However, new research concludes that telomere shortening is neither inevitable, nor a one-way street.  Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues, discovered why. In 2009 they received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Telomerase – a protective enzyme in our cells that actually replenishes and lengthens telomeres. More telomerase means longer telomeres, and thus longer and healthier cell life, and presumably longer life for the organism. As you can imagine, the implication of Blackburn’s discovery for the treatment of age related disease, and the investigation of the aging process, is now growing rapidly.

Stress and Telomere Length

Many common diseases of aging are associated with shorter telomeres: cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, weakened immune system, and cardiovascular disease. Research has linked chronic stress to shortened telomere length. Interestingly, pessimism in post-menopausal women shortens telomeres as well. Chronic stress wears down our telomeres and causes our cells, and our bodies, to age and die more rapidly. But what happens to telomere length when we learn to positively change the way we manage stress? Studies now show that reducing stress and increasing positive states of mind, particularly through the practice of mindfulness, promotes telomere maintenance and lengthening!

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as taught in the 8-week program “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” or “MBSR,” is one of the most extensively studied methods for reducing stress and improving quality of life and overall health. Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, without judgment. It’s considered an inherent aspect of human consciousness, and it can be strengthened through a variety of mental training techniques collectively known as mindfulness meditation.

How Does a Mindfulness Practice Result in Longer Telomeres?

The evidence reveals that mindfulness meditation practices are associated with increased levels of telomerase, the enzyme that protects, replenishes, and even lengthens telomeres. Researchers believe this is so because mindfulness promotes the adaptive regulation of emotion and reactivity, and is linked to greater psychological well-being. Mindfulness practice decreases rumination (the pattern of revisiting negative thoughts), while it increases the intensity and frequency of positive and pro-social emotions like empathy, kindness and compassion for yourself and others.

“We have found that meditation promotes positive psychological changes, and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various psychological measures had the highest levels of [the chromosome protecting enzyme] Telomerase.” Clifford Saron, PhD University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain

Researchers believe that cultivating positive mental states, and decreasing negative moods and thinking, through a regular mindfulness practice, results in a “stress-buffering” benefit for our cells.  This positive change boosts our levels of telomerase which replenishes and lengthens telomeres and the life-span of our cells. In this way a mindfulness practice buffers cells against the long-term wear and tear effects of stress, and is thus believed to slow the rate of cellular aging.

References:

Blackburn, E. H. Telomeres and Telomerase: The means to the end. Nobel Lecture by Elizabeth H. Blackburn, delivered December 7, 2009 at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm (retrieved from www.nobelprize.org)

Epel, E. et. al. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009 August; 1172: 34–53.

Jacobs, T. L. et. al. Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010)

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