For thousands of years people have been searching for ways to increase life span. What drives us to want to live longer? Many would argue that there is a biological impulse that motivates us to live as long as possible. Perhaps it is part of our survival instinct that is hard wired into our autonomic nervous system. That instinct is expressed through our fight or flight response which drives us to live as long as possible. The fight or flight response is driven by fear so perhaps we can say that fear plays a role in our quest for longevity. Even without the fear we seem to seek longevity particularly if there is also quality of life.
Ideally we want to increase quality of life along with life span and usually the two go together. Great strides have been made over the past 50 years to increase both. Medical breakthroughs, increased knowledge about healthy lifestyle changes in diet, nutrition, exercise, emotional intelligence and stress reduction have pushed the envelope of our ability to increase longevity along with quality of life. For many years meditation has been thought to increase quality of life and longevity. Up until about 35 years ago we relied on our experience to confirm the link between meditation, quality of life and longevity. Now we have a body of evidence that is confirming this and one of the most interesting discoveries recently has to do with the effects of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation on longevity.
Mindfulness meditation seems to affect longevity of the physical body in a few different ways, starting at the cellular level. One that I find to be of great significance is that scientists have isolated length of telomeres and telomerase as indicators of cellular aging. Our cells contain chromosomes, or sequences of DNA. Telomeres are “protective protein caps” at the end of our DNA strands that allow for continued cell replication. The longer the telomere, the more times a cell can divide and refresh. Each time a cell replicates, its telomere length, and therefore its lifespan, gets shorter in a natural aging process.
Telomerase is an enzyme in the body that prevents telomere shortening and can even add telomeric DNA back to the telomere and help our body’s cells live for a longer period of time.
Shorter telomere length in cells is linked with poorer immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. The shorter the length of our telomeres, the more susceptible our cells are to dying and the more susceptible we are to disease, as we get older.
Telomere shortening happens naturally as we age, but research now shows that it can be accelerated by stress, speeding up the aging process of the body. Meditation is known to reduce stress so research was designed to see if meditation could affect telomeres.
In 2013 Elizabeth Hoge, MD a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, investigated this idea by leading a study comparing telomere length of experienced loving-kindness meditation (LKM) practitioners with that of non-meditators. Results revealed that those with more years of meditation practice had longer telomere length overall, and that women meditators had significantly longer telomeres as compared to women non-meditators. These findings further support meditation’s positive effect on healthy cellular aging and provide fodder for future longitudinal research that could track change in telomere length over time.
Other studies using mindfulness meditation have also made the connection between longer telomeres and sustained meditation practice. These studies are at the forefront of mindfulness meditation and longevity research. As more studies are published I think we will confirm without a doubt that mindfulness meditation definitely increases longevity.