How a Nobel Prize Winner Proved that Meditation Slows Down Aging

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Spiritual practices like meditation are often seen in a different light than biomedical research whose core focus is on molecular processes and repeatable results.

Some biologists, however, got interested in the relationship between meditation, stress reduction, and longevity (thank God!). Though it’s a territory that many scientists fear to tread, Elizabeth Blackburn and her team have proved that meditation successfully reduces stress and lengthens life — just as the Eastern philosophies have long foretold.

When Blackburn worked with Yale biologist Joe Gall in the 1970s, she sequences the chromosome tips of a single-celled freshwater creature named Tetrahymena (or “pond scum” as she says). She found a repeating DNA motif that acts as a protective cap on the chromosomes which was dubbed as telomeres. Later telomeres were found on human chromosomes as well.

Their role is to shield the cell when they divide but they wear down with each division. Additionally, Blackburn also discovered an enzyme called telomerase that protects and rebuilds telomeres.

At any rate, our telomeres wear over a period of time and when they get too short, our cells malfunction to lose their ability to divide. This division is a crucial process to lengthen life and reduce the rate of aging.

This discovery by Blackburn won her a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Soon after that in 2000, she received a call from Elissa Epel, a postdoc from UCSF’s psychiatry department. It’s weird to see a psychiatrist call a biologist — what could they possibly talk about? Yet, Epel was interested in studying the damaging effect of stress on the body using Blackburn’s help.

Epel, who’s highly interested in the workings of the mind and body, is inspired by Deepak Chopra and a pioneering biologist Hans Selye who was the first one to describe in the 1930s how stress makes rats chronically ill.

Selye said, “Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” And Epel was determined to find that scar inside us.

Thus, when she came across Blackburn’s work on telomeres, she thought they could be the scar on human cells that she was looking for.

Testing the Hypothesis

To test her assumption, Epel, with the help of Blackburn set out to study mothers who were caring for a chronically ill child. There’s hardly anything that could be more stressful than that.

Epel wanted to find a correlation between the state of mind or stress levels of the mothers and the state of their telomeres.

Although it took four years to get ready to collect blood samples from 58 women, Blackburn still saw the trial as nothing more than a feasibility exercise. That changed when Epel called her one day and said,

“You won’t believe it!”

Epel’s amazement owed to the fact that the results were crystal clear. The more stressed the mothers were, the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase.

The most frazzled women in the study had telomeres that translated into an extra decade or so of aging compared to those who were least stressed, while their telomerase levels were halved.

This was one of the first indications that stress doesn’t only affect us, it ages us.

Enter Meditation

“Ten years ago, if you’d told me that I would be seriously thinking about meditation, I would have said one of us is loco,” Blackburn told the New York Times in 2007.

Ever since their discovery of the relationship between stress and telomere length, Epel and Blackburn have been collaborating with teams worldwide to test the most effective ways to reduce stress — these include activities like exercise, healthy eating, social support, etc.

Yet, while all of this helps, there’s one practice that not only slows down the erosion of telomeres but also lengthens them again.

Of course, that’s meditation.

In one study, they sent participants to meditate at the Shambala mountain retreat in northern Colorado. One group completed a 3-month long retreat and another was on the waiting list. The results? The first group had 30% higher levels of telomerase.

Another study of dementia caregivers by UCLA’s Irwin found that volunteers who did Kirtan Kriya (an ancient chanting meditation technique) for 12 minutes a day for 8 weeks, had significantly higher telomerase activity than the other group which listened to relaxing music.

In all these studies and many more, it was found that meditation helped to increase telomerase activity and that the people with longer telomerase had:

  • Improve cognitive ability,
  • Less negative thoughts,
  • Higher awareness,
  • Better purpose of life,
  • Improved overall health,
  • And of course, lived longer

“Being present in your activities and in your interactions is precious, and it’s rare these days with all of the multitasking we do,” says Epel. “I do think that in general, we’ve got a society with scattered attention, particularly when people are highly stressed and don’t have the resources to just be present wherever they are.”

Final Thoughts

Since biologists don’t really study meditation, it’s a big kudos to Dr. Blacburn and Elissa Epel who had the courage to pursue this. That said, their work is seminal and something that others can build upon in different contexts.

Even though studies are still being conducted regularly on the positive effects of meditation, they all tentatively point in the same direction — that it’s really good!

There will be tons of new research on meditation, but the question is how much proof do we need to get started with this simple practice?

Don’t wait for “science” to convince you. Be like a scientist and experiment yourself. We like to experiment with tons of things in our lives — meditation is no different.

Once you do that, there will be no need to read about scientific studies. Do you know why? Because your inner, personal experience will tell you what you’re gaining from meditation and that will be more convincing than anything I (or any scientist) can tell you.

So, the call to action is simple — if you haven’t already, start meditating. In fact, close your eyes now and observe your breath for a few seconds. That’s all you need to get started.

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Written on July 31, 2021