A recent study suggests that intensive and sustained meditation may boost the activity of telomerase, an enzyme responsible for telomere length and maintenance. Reductions in telomerase and telomere length have been linked to aging, psychological distress, and other health problems such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Telomeres are “protective DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes” which play a key role in cellular aging, and function as a clock that limits cell lifespan. Each time cellular division occurs, telomeres grow shorter, unless the enzyme telomerase builds them back up. Once telomeres grow too short, cellular death occurs because the cell can no longer replicate.
Researchers with the Shamantha Project, the most comprehensive study of the long-term effects of meditation to-date, measured the impact of intensive meditation practice on telomerase activity and psychological distress. Meditation practitioners recruited to participate in the study were randomly assigned to one of two groups: 1) experimental, who participated in a 3-month Buddhist meditation retreat, and 2) control. The retreat participants meditated an average of 6 hours per day and were taught a mix of mindfulness, compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity meditation practices.
Mindfulness meditation refers to the non-judgmental and non-reactive deployment of attention to present-moment experience as it arises. This attention can focus on inner experience (thoughts, emotions) or outer experience. Compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity meditations arouse delight and heartfelt wishes for the well-being, joy, and happiness of others.
At the end of the study, retreat participants were found to have significantly greater increases in telomerase activity than did control participants. These increases were predicted by “an increased sense of control (over circumstances or daily life); increased sense of purpose in life; and lower neuroticism (being tense, moody, and anxious). The more these improved, the greater the effect on the meditators’ telomerase.” The study also suggests that increases in telomerase may be partially caused by changes in psychological health.
However, these findings are preliminary. Because only telomerase was measured, the findings merely infer that meditation may lengthen telomere length. Still, the study provides initial support for the theory that mediation may slow or even reverse cellular aging, perhaps by improving psychological health and reducing stress.
If a 3-month meditation retreat is not available to you, never fear. “Mini-meditations—focusing on our breath or being aware of our surroundings,” are suggested by University of California at San Francisco-researcher Elissa Epel as a way to access the benefits of meditation. You can learn several short and simple meditation practices on the YogaBasics.com meditation section.
Do the results of this study motivate you to begin or maintain a regular practice of meditation?