This is a cross post from my other “science & self-exploration” blog about mindfulness and the mind-body connection (yoga).
In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on the biology of so-called telomeres – the DNA sequences found at the end of our chromosomes (actually just a repeating sequence of TTAGGG). The very cool thing about telomeres is that the overall length of these sequences (number of repeating units of TTAGGG) correlates with life-span. This is because as cells in your body are born, they go through a number of cell divisions (each time the cell divides, the telomeres shorten) until they go kaput (replicative senescence). Amazingly, regular cells like these (that normally die after several cell divisions) can be induced to live far longer by simply – lengthening their telomeres (increasing the amount of a telomere lengthening enzyme known as telomerase) – which is why some think of telomeres as the key to cellular immortality.
Imagine your own longevity if all your cells lived twice as long.
With this in mind, it was awesome to read a paper by Dr. Blackburn and colleagues entitled, “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres” [doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x]. The authors carefully ponder – but do not definitively assert – a connection between meditative practices and telomere length (and therefore, lifespan). The main thrust of the article is that there are causal links between cellular stress and telomere length AND causal links between physiological stress and meditative practices. Might there, then, be a connection between meditative practices and telomere length?
Above we have reviewed data linking stress arousal and oxidative stress to telomere shortness. Meditative practices appear to improve the endocrine balance toward positive arousal (high DHEA, lower cortisol) and decrease oxidative stress. Thus, meditation practices may promote mitotic cell longevity both through decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stress and increasing hormones that may protect the telomere.
Given that eastern meditative practices are thousands of years old, its strange to say, but these are early days in beginning to understand HOW – in terms of molecular processes – these practices might influence health.
Still, I think I’ll send some thoughts to my telomeres next meditation session!