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Meditation might help you live longer

May 20, 2011

Note: Interested in making meditation a part of your life? Starting June 5, Yen Yoga is hosting an 8-week meditation workshop. The workshop will explore the various forms of meditation and mindfulness, the health benefits of a meditation practice, how to meditate, how to stay dedicated to your practice, and more. For more information, check out the workshop information page here

Increasingly, research is telling us that meditation has benefits beyond providing spiritual calm. Studies have shown that meditation can help lower blood pressure, boost the immune response in cancer patients and vaccine recipients, help prevent relapse in patients with recurrent depression, and even slow disease progression in patients with HIV.

But up until this point, most meditation studies have targeted how meditation can help people with specific conditions.

Enter the Shamatha project. This eight-year study, coordinated by University of California neuroscientist Clifford Saron, is an attempt to see what a longer, more intensive course of meditation might do for healthy people. Participants each spent three months in an intensive meditation retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado, while a team of researchers and scientists ran various tests on the volunteers before, during and after the retreat.

Aside from the retreat’s effects on participants’ emotional responses and cognitive abilities, perhaps the most interesting part of this study was the findings about how meditation can possibly affect our longevity—on a cellular level.

From The Guardian:

Psychologist Elissa Epel, from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), wanted to know what the retreat was doing to the participants’ chromosomes, in particular their telomeres. Telomeres play a key role in the ageing of cells, acting like a clock that limits their lifespan. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, unless an enzyme called telomerase builds them back up. When telomeres get too short, a cell can no longer replicate, and ultimately dies.

It’s not just an abstract concept. People with shorter telomeres are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And they die younger.

Epel has been collaborating with UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the 2009 Nobel physiology or medicine prize for her work on telomeres, to investigate whether telomeres are affected by psychological factors. They found that at the end of the retreat, meditators had significantly higher telomerase activity than the control group, suggesting that their telomeres were better protected. The researchers are cautious, but say that in theory this might slow or even reverse cellular ageing. “If the increase in telomerase is sustained long enough,” says Epel, “it’s logical to infer that this group would develop more stable and possibly longer telomeres over time.”

Pagnoni has previously used brain imaging to show that meditation may protect against the cognitive decline that occurs as we age. But the Shamatha project is the first to suggest that meditation plays a role in cellular ageing. If that link is confirmed, he says, “that would be groundbreaking.”

Of course, not everyone has time for a three-month meditation retreat. For a quick boost of calm (and its health benefits), researchers from the study suggest “mini-meditations”—taking a moment to focus on breathing or being aware of your surroundings—at regular points throughout the day.

For a full article on how the Shamatha project worked, hop over to The Guardian.

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