Meditation claims many benefits. One may be to slow down, and even reverse, aging.
A study from the University of California San Francisco set out to see what effect a tendency toward present moment attention, a key feature of some forms of mindfulness meditation, had on the length of cellular telomeres.
239 women ages 49 to 66 who were experienced meditators were chosen for the study. They practiced forms of meditation that focus on the breath, and had done so for from two to thirty-five years each.
The researchers measured mind-wandering versus attentional focus on the present in the women and found that the more one’s mind wanders the shorter their telomeres.
Telomeres are the protective coatings on the end of each strand of DNA that help facilitate cell replication. As people age, or face severe stress or mental illness, telomeres shorten and fray, and cell replication slows down. Age-related health challenges and mortality follow.
The longer the telomeres the less impact of aging on health.
The women with a better ability to focus on the present, presumably developed through their meditation practice, had longer telomeres than the women who’s minds wandered and had more difficulty focusing on the present.
The mind-wanderers cell age was five years older than the women who could hold attention.
Something always seems to jump out of these studies that makes me question the researchers’ claims, the validity of the conclusions, or the applicability of the data to many people.
Nothing shortens telomeres like stress, and severe stress impacts telomere health even more than aging. The researchers sought to choose people with little stress in their lives as a control on their focus on attention as the key factor of investigation.
The women chosen for the study were not a very diverse group, and they all reported low levels of stress and high satisfaction with life. They were highly educated, 84% with a college degree or higher, 51% with a professional degree; highly compensated, 48% earned more than $100,000 per year, 32% between $50,000 and $100,000; and white, 89% Caucasian, 6% Asian, 3% Latina and 2% African American.
So maybe the real conclusion is that affluent, highly educated white woman with little stress in their lives, who happen to meditate, age slower than everybody else.
Meditation is great. Everyone (almost) should do it. It will help most people manage stress and may even keep all of us young.
But let’s take these sweeping claims of the universal benefits of mindfulness with the skepticism they deserve.
To sum this all up, women who love their lives live longer.