Many factors that affect the ageing process. But a growing body of scientific research shows how the very gentle practice of meditation can have a powerful impact.
A few highlights:
Biological age 12 years less than chronological age
One of the earliest studies was conducted by Dr Robert Keith Wallace, whose findings were published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 1982. Dr Wallace explored the impact of Transcendental Meditation practice on a number of biological markers of ageing. These included measuring DHEA levels in people’s blood. DHEA is the only hormone known to decrease directly with age. It helps protect us from heart disease, helps fight bacteria and viruses and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties – critical in the prevention of many illnesses including arthritis, osteoporosis and certain cancers.
Dr Wallace found that people who had been practising meditation for more than 5 years, had biological markers 12 years younger than their chronological age. In other words, a 55 year old meditator had DHEA levels and other markers of a 43 year old.
Separate studies conducted by Dr Vincent Giampapa also show how meditation can dramatically increase levels of melatonin, serotonin and DHEA when people start to meditate, at the same time as reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (http://www.project-meditation.org/community/learn-how-you-can-benefit-project-meditation/26-longevity-beneficial-hormones-released-during-meditation.html)
Telomerase activity 33% higher
A research team led by Dr Clifford Saron of the University of California Davis Centre for Mind and Brain explored the multiple impacts of meditation during a three month retreat in 2007 guided by meditation teacher and author B Alan Wallace. This was called the Shamatha Project. Among the many intriguing findings was the impact of meditation on telomerase.
Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres, the sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that tend to get shorter every time a cell divides. When telomeres drop below a critical length, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies, so telomere length is an indicator of cell longevity.
The Shamatha Project showed that telomerase activity was about 33% higher in the white blood cells of the meditators who took part in the retreat than in control groups. As Dr Saron observed: ‘Meditation may improve a person’s psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person’s sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology.’ (http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/labs/Saron/lab-news/The%20Shamatha%20Project.pdf)
Meditation slows genetic ageing and enhances genetic repair
Separate work undertaken by a team led by Australian Nobel Prize-winning researcher Elizabeth Blackburn has shown that meditation may slow genetic ageing and enhance genetic repair. A summary of this work published in 2011 says that ‘some forms of meditation may have salutary effects of telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.’ (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3057175/)
Meditation is not only psychologically beneficial. Beneath the threshold of our awareness it creates profound and highly beneficial changes in our physical functioning. These changes include the hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes our bodies produce. While research in this field is still relatively new, and scientists can’t yet make any definitive statements, the evidence so far shows a variety of inter-related ways in which meditation reduces stress, slows ageing and promotes a longer – and more contented – life.
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