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The Effects of Meditation on Aging, According to Science

Aging | Health

As most of you know by now, meditation has various great benefits. Science is catching up on ancient wisdom, and a growing number of studies prove the benefits of meditation for your mind. But the benefits do not stop there! Meditation has a list of long-lasting physical effects as well. One of these is the effect it has on aging: it appears that meditation has the ability to keep us younger, longer.

If you are not yet convinced about meditation, after reading about the scientific research on how it affects aging, you might be ready to change your mind.

Telomeres, and Why They Matter

One of the best ways to measure the age of the body is to look beyond the physical symptoms of aging and to dive deeper to the cellular level.

Telomeres are tiny protective caps located at each end of our DNA, and their job is to protect the strands of DNA that make up our chromosomes. Our cells replenish by copying themselves, but every time this happens, the telomeres get a little bit shorter, eventually resulting in cell death. Cells that reproduce most often, such as skin, lung, and immune system cells, are the worst affected by telomere shortening. In a way, telomeres represent our actual, biological age.

What Shortens Telomeres?

Simply aging will cause the telomeres to shorten, but there are many lifestyle issues that can speed up this process. Stress is one of the biggest factors, but smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise can all cause telomeres to shorten faster than they naturally would.

The longer the telomere, the more times a cell can divide and refresh. Longer telomeres are therefore thought to keep us healthier by strengthening the immune system and preventing degenerative conditions such as osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Luckily, science is now showing that our general health and wellbeing is not in the hands of our genes alone. We can influence our physiology with our lifestyle–and with meditation.

How Can Meditation Slow Aging?

A 2009 study suggested a positive effect of meditation on telomere length given the known negative effects of stress. Since then multiple studies have backed up this theory.

In a 2011 study, participants in a 30 -day meditation retreat showed that “telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants than in controls at the end of the retreat.”

A 2014 study conducted over eight weeks showed a 43% increase in telomerase activity in older people who had spent 12 minutes a day doing kirtan kriya, a chanting meditation, compared with a control group who had listened to relaxing music during these 12 minutes. The meditation group also showed improvement in general mental health and cognitive function.

Finally, a 2013 study at Harvard Medical School showed a clear correlation between the practice of loving-kindness meditation and telomere length in women.

This all sounds quite promising and interesting, doesn’t it? But we are not done yet.

Gray Matter Matters

Meditation has another physical impact at the cellular level. Around the time we hit 30, the gray matter in the brain–the part that processes information–begins to slowly deteriorate.

A 2009 study at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine compared MRI scans of the brains of people experienced in meditation, and people inexperienced in meditation. They found that the meditators had more gray matter in the area of the brain that is important for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility.

So if we want to improve our chances of avoiding memory loss, or even Alzheimer’s disease, as we age, regular meditation seems to be a good habit to take on.

Meditation is a Training Program for the Brain

Neuroscientists know that the brain is an evolving organ, and the brain we have today is partly a reflection of the demands we have put on it. If you continuously teach your brain to focus on your breath, concentration will become easier. When we practice calm acceptance, we become more stress resilient. And the more stress resilient, focused, and calm we can remain in life, the better our chances of maintaining longer telomeres as well.

Knowing what we know today about the benefits of meditation, there really is very little excuse not to practice–especially when you can start with just few minutes a day. Who can’t spare that, if it can add (healthy) years or even decades to your life? Let’s invest in our future, one slow and conscious breath at a time!

Image credit: Samrat Pasham

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