The 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn, claims that meditation promotes the protection of telomeres, whose shortening causes cellular aging.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is the renowned biologist who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of how the length of these telomeres is regulated. Her groundbreaking research revealed a biological indicator called telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes our telomeres and protects our genetic heritage. It’s Blackburn’s discovery that led to the first genetic indications of a fountain of youth hiding inside our DNA. If you’ve ever wondered why some sixty-year-olds look and feel like forty-year-olds and why some forty-year-olds look and feel like sixty-year-olds, the answer lies in our telomeres.
What are telomeres?
If you think of your chromosomes – which carry your genetic material – as shoelaces, telomeres are the little protective tips at the end. They are made of repeating short sequences of DNA sheathed in special proteins.
During our lives they tend to wear down and when telomeres can’t protect chromosomes properly, cells can’t replenish and they malfunction. This sets up physiological changes in the body which increase risks of the major conditions and diseases of ageing: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, a weakened immune system and more. But the process is somewhat malleable. It is happening in all of us at some rate, but the rate can change. An enzyme called telomerase can add DNA to the ends of chromosomes to slow, prevent and partially reverse the shortening.
Every time you complete a session of meditation, you are effectively younger than you were when you started
Specific lifestyle and psychological habits can protect telomeres, slowing disease and improving life. One of the most powerful of these habits being meditation, which has an astonishing ability to safeguard our telomeres. Chronic stress, depression, and ruminating negative thinking all act together to eat away at the length of telomeres and take years off a human life span. But through meditation this corrosive effect is shut down, effectively adding years to your life.
Blackburn writes: “We consider two processes or psychological states that oppose each other: threatening thinking and mindfulness, and their effects on cellular aging. Cognitions of psychological stress, in particular the feeling of threat and rumination thoughts, can induce prolonged states of reactivity. In contrast, meditation and mindfulness techniques seem to change those cognitive assessments of threat and challenge, decrease circular thinking, and reduce anxiety. Mindfulness or mindfulness may instead directly increase states of positive stimulation.
We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and anxiety and presenting new data linking cognitive assessment to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have healthy effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and anxiety and increasing positive mental states and hormonal factors that can promote telomere maintenance. Aspects of this model are currently being tested in ongoing mindfulness meditation trials.”
How quickly can telomere length change?
You can see the effects of interventions in as little as a few months. But it is really the long-term changes, over periods of a year to 10 years, that are going to be predictive of increased health span.