Meditation, a thousands year old practice originating in Asia, is still new to America. It entered our popular culture in the 50's, sprung to widespread awareness in the 60's and took root in the 70's. Today it's offered in schools, at major corporations and well respected medical facilities as a means of reducing stress and improving mental and physical health. Now advancements in neuroscience and imaging are enabling studies that suggest it may also slow aging.
If you've never tried to meditate you may be wondering how sitting still with your eyes closed could possibly slow a force as inevitable as aging. It's a good question and it's being answered in mounting numbers of rigorous studies. Telomeres (compounds protecting the end of our chromosomes ) weren't discovered until the 90's but they figure prominently in this new research which shows that experienced meditators have 10% longer telomeres than non meditators. Why is that important? "The shorter your telomeres, the greater your chance of dying," writes evolutionary biologist and author, Josh Mitteldorf. How does meditation lengthen telomeres? Meditators perform high on studies of life satisfaction, happiness, the ability to face moments of suffering rather than avoid them, and self compassion--all traits that promote freedom from stress and, in turn, support telomere health.
Elizabeth Blackburn, winner of the Nobel prize for her co-discovery of telomeres, conducted several studies of her own looking at meditation methods in an effort to learn more about how the practice contributes to telomere health. She found telomerase ( enzymes that promote healthy cell growth and division ) increased after subjects spent 3 months at a meditative retreat and after dementia caregivers spent 12 minutes a day in chanting meditation for 8 weeks. In addition, study participants that participated in mindfulness training actually lengthened their telomeres! Meditation practice helps us develop many qualities that contribute to chromosome vitality but how does it really work? Rina Deshpande, a meditation researcher working with Harvard Medical School, writes in an article for Huffington Post, "A small but growing body of research indicates we may alter our individual brain structure through meditation and potentially slow structural degeneration. Meditation may capitalize on the brain’s undying hunger to be preserved and thrive."
If you like the nitty gritty details of study results documenting the biological workings and benefits of meditation turn to Vince Giuliano, PhD, Melody Winnig and physician James Watson's blog covering the history of meditation in America, five well documented benefits of meditation, and Watson's list of the top 21 benefits of meditation. My own top five benefits for you to consider are: stress reduction, improvements in cognitive function, help with chronic pain/inflammation, help backing away from negative thoughts and behaviors, and positive effects on heart rate variability which supports the body in better regulating its many functions. Do these outcomes interest you?
8% of Americans practice meditation in some form. You'll find a short overview of the popular types at Mayo Clinic. Perhaps your doctor or a local hospital can guide you to meditation classes or groups in your city. Here at Way2age, explore how mindful self-compassion, a secular form of meditation, can help you manage self criticism. Learn more about meditation online at: The Insight Meditation Community of Washington, The Chopra Center, or Dharma Ocean-- just a few of the web's great meditation resources. Wade into the meditation world by taking the free, self paced Online Mindful Based Stress Reduction course.
Meditation traveled to America via the minds of devoted Boomers coming back from treks to the East during the 60s and 70's. This century the thousands of years old practice came of age in our culture. Today, advancements in science are enabling meditation research driven by the search for health in mind, body and spirit. Can meditation slow aging? That's what data suggests but, readers, the only way to really find out is to give it a try.