For the life of me I can’t figure out why more people don’t meditate. It’s not that hard, doesn’t take much time and has several life-transforming benefits like helping relieve anxiety, depression and chronic pain, improving focus and boosting our immune systems. So much benefit for so little cost. That’s why I’m spending the vast majority of my professional life on spreading this fantastic practice as far and wide as I can.
Telomeres and gray matter
The focus of this piece is a less well-known benefit of meditation: The slowing of the aging process. This manifests mainly in on how meditation affects two entities in our bodies: Telomeres and gray matter. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
Telomeres help to slow the general aging process by helping our cells divide more healthily as we age. Gray matter deterioration is a chief marker of Alzheimer’s and overall cognition decline.
[As an aside, gray matter is made up of brain cells, billions of which died on the field of battle as I wracked my head researching and writing the scientific explanations that follow. You’re welcome.]
1. SLOWING THE OVERALL AGING PROCESS
Telomeres are protective caps found at the end of our chromosomes. [Quick high school biology refresher — chromosomes are proteins found in the nucleus of our cells that carry genetic information in the form of genes.] Each time our cells divide, these telomeres serve as protective shields at the ends of our chromosomes.
However, telomeres wear down after each cell division. And when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide — a process that is now recognized as a key driver in drum roll, please-
Shortened telomeres seem to have devastating consequences for our health, causing age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes, and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and stroke.
Telomerase to the rescue
The good news is that a scientist named Elizabeth Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres and telomerase, found that the stress hormone cortisol reduces the activity of telomerase. Stress hurts our ability to protect our telomeres, which hastens aging.
Subsequent work by Blackburn showed that meditation produced higher levels of telomerase. In one study participants who completed a three-month-long meditation course had 30% higher levels of telomerase than a similar group on a waiting list.
Another study of dementia caregivers, a high-stress cohort, found that those who did an ancient chanting meditation twelve minutes a day for eight weeks had significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group who listened to relaxing music.
Stress, the culprit again
Scientists aren’t sure why meditation results in increased telomerase and therefore longer telomeres (and therefore slowed aging) but the current thinking is that it simply reduces stress.
To sum up: When cells divide, telomeres protect our chromosomes, but as we age these telomeres shorten. Meditation helps build healthy telomerase which helps to keep telomeres longer which helps our cells divide which slows the aging process. (telomere information from an article by Jo Marchant on BBC.com — 6/30/14)
2. SLOWING AGE-RELATED BRAIN DECLINE
My dad died five years ago at 93. But the truth is he left us seven years before that when dementia invaded his brain, sending him off on a voyage to the netherworld of memory loss, confusion, and quietude. It wasn’t a pleasant trip. In fact, it was agonizing for his six children to watch this slow, inexorable descent into the clutches of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Many millions of American sons and daughters are battling this same scourge right now as their parents’ cognitive health declines. It’s the reality of our modern world where people are living longer.
The brilliant Bill Shankle
Fortunately, neurologists like Dr. William Shankle in Newport Beach, CA, are discovering different therapies, from medicines to exercise to brain activities that may help to slow the decline of our brains. One of those activities is meditation.
It turns out that meditation helps to slow the decline in gray matter, the tissue in our brain that facilitates cognition and stores our memories, something we all experience as we age.
UCLA study of meditators
A 2015 study from UCLA Medical School found solid evidence proving that meditators’ brains declined less from aging than did those of non-meditators.
Using fMRI technology, researchers examined the gray matter volume in 100 participants — 50 long-term meditators and 50 non-meditators, all matched by age from 24 to 77 years old. What they found was that both groups had declining gray matter as they aged. That wasn’t surprising. But the gray matter of the long-term meditators declined significantly less in comparison to their age-equal non-meditators.
This is huge news for meditation as it appears that regular meditation correlates with far better gray matter preservation, something that is essential for staving off Alzheimer’s and other diseases of cognitive decline.
Staving off curmudgeonliness
I’ll end with a non-scientific benefit meditation bestows on the aging process. I call it slowing the progression of curmudgeonliness. And yes, I made that word up.
I am convinced that meditation helps to curb that “Get off my lawn!” syndrome that afflicts most of us as we age. And I’m not even kidding here.
The regular meditators in their sixties and seventies that I’ve observed appear noticeably calmer, more patient and less apt to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. And I’m not just talking about the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer and other older spiritual luminaries I’ve observed. I’m talking about regular people I know.
What a gift that is to their kids, grandkids, spouses, friends and, let’s face it, what a wonderful gift to themselves. The gift of equanimity as we traverse the sunset of our lives.
I hope the takeaway is obvious. Develop a regular meditation practice! It’s not that hard, doesn’t take much time, costs nothing and yields profound benefits.
Go to davidgerken.net for a free program that will help you get started.