Not everyone has the same view of living a long life as I do. Had my grandfather been born three months earlier, he would have lived in three centuries – the 19th, 20th and 21st century. Instead, born in March 1901, when he died at 110 in 2011 he had only lived in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am not at all convinced that I wish to live anywhere near that long. This means, every time I read scientific journal articles about the “benefits” of Mindfulness meditation to include slower ageing and a longer life I am not entirely convinced they are benefits. Reviewing the research on telomeres, telomerase and meditation for a class I’m teaching next week brought these questions up again for me.
Here is my understanding of the effect of meditation on telomeres and telomerase. But let’s take a step back first. Telomeres are the protective end parts of chromosomes. They seem to act as disposable buffers. Every time a cell divides and the chromosome is copied, the telomeres are destroyed. This means important DNA isn’t lost from the chromosome. The telomeres are later restored to the original length by the action of the enzyme telomerase. “Telomerase activity is a predictor of long term cellular viability.” Chronic stress decreases cellular viability. Without telomerase and the restoration of the telomeres, it is thought that the body ages more quickly.
So how does meditation effect telomerase? Research published by the University of California Davis Centre for Mind and Brain investigated the effect of significant meditation at a three-month retreat on telomerase activity. This was compared to a control group. Telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants. This benefit was thought to be an indirect consequence caused by the positive psychological changes that occurred during meditation training. Increases by the participants’ in perceived control and decreases in negative affect (emotion) were related to increased telomerase activity. Those participants who had the greatest increase in their Purpose in Life (an established psychological measure) through the meditation had the most significant benefits in terms of telomerase activity.