There’s a growing number of researchers who support the immediate benefits of meditation – which on one hand reduces well-known harmful symptoms like stress, anxiety and blood pressure and, on the other hand, boosts happiness. Studies on mindfulness show these effects are common in as few as eight weeks of practice. The positive impact of meditation can be even more far-reaching. Research indicates that constant practicing prolongs years of life and improves cognitive function well into old age.
Science discovered that the changes caused by practicing are deep and begin at the intracellular level. Researchers isolated the length of telomeres – “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. However, each time a cell replicates, its telomere length, and therefore its lifespan, get shorter in a natural aging process.
The same isolation process was done with telomerase, an enzyme that prevents telomere shortening and can even add telomeric DNA back to the telomere. This process helps body cells to live a longer period of time.
How does this relate to length of human lifespan? “Shorter telomere length in cells is linked with poorer immune-system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease,” summarizes psychiatrist Elissa Epel, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. “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 it can also be accelerated by external factors. A recent survey shows that it can be accelerated by stress, speeding up the aging process of the body.
In 2004, Elissa and her team found that psychological stress is significantly correlated with shorter telomere length in leukocytes, antibody cells that fight disease. The study compared telomere length in two groups of mothers. The first was composed of premenopausal mothers caring for chronically ill children. And the second, of moms with healthy children. As predicted, the first group facing more environmental stress had significantly shorter telomere length and lower telomerase activity.
The scientists made an even more striking discovery. The high level of stress was associated with shorter telomere length and lower telomerase levels – regardless of circumstance and controlling for effects of the normal aging process. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress 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.
Going back to meditation, in a 2009 article, psychiatrist Elissa suggested that constant practicing can also have potential positive effects on preservation of telomere length and telomerase activity. Even though the body follows the expected degeneration trajectory over time, it’s possible to extend the golden years with protective activities. Such is the case of exercise concentration with constancy and persistency, which in old age can provide a more comfortable life.
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