MIchael Hunter, MD, Column

Does Mindfulness Slow Cell Aging?

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — centered in mindfulness meditation — has evolved to encompass the management of several health disorders

STRESS, DEPRESSION, PAIN, and more. Let’s explore what mindfulness meditation can do for your mind and health. Who amongst us does not experience stress?

Unfortunately, chronic stress causes our adrenal glands to make too much of the hormone cortisol. When exposed to excessive cortisol, we can experience negative consequences in our brain, immune system, and other organs. More specifically, you may have anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, and premature death.The Power of the Mind to Reduce InflammationOUR ANCESTORS EXPERIENCED very different stresses than do we today. Hunter-gatherers may have faced off against a lion…medium.com

Of course, in a perfect world, you would minimize your exposure to chronic stress agents. How can we reduce the harmful effects of chronic stress? Today we explore some history before briefly addressing the effects of mindfulness meditation on markers associated with aging.

History

First, a bit of history. The English word “meditation” stems from meditatum, Latin for “to ponder.” Getting more granular, we turn to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, meditacioun, “contemplation; devout preoccupation; private devotions, prayer,” from Old French meditacion “thought, reflection, study,” and directly from Latin meditationem (nominative meditatio) “a thinking over, meditation,” noun of action from past-participle stem of meditari “to meditate, think over, reflect, consider,” from a frequentative form of PIE root *med- “take appropriate measures.” Meaning “meditative discourse on a subject” is early 14c.; meaning “act of meditating, continuous calm thought upon some subject” is from late 14c. The Latin verb also had stronger senses: “plan, devise, practice, rehearse, study.”

We don’t know when people began to meditate, but the practice likely began thousands of years ago, before the birth of modern civilization.

The earliest written records about meditation are from around 1500 BCE. The mindfulness approach appears to have been an essential element of the earliest forms of Vedic (early Hindu) schools in India.

Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

Meditation practices are a part of many religious traditions worldwide, but I associated it with Buddhism as a formal part of a spiritual path. The Buddha taught in Southeast Asia approximately 2600 years ago, opening the door to future practitioners to sit and breathe their way to peace.

Buddha’s teachings offer that meditative concentration is one of three pieces of training that result in enlightenment. The other two are the wisdom of seeing things as they indeed are and proper ethical conduct.

Modern practice

More recently, a central figure in the promulgation of mindfulness is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. He founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (USA) in 1979. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program has “been instrumental in bringing the benefits of mindfulness practice — without any religious overtones — to the public attention and scientific communities worldwide.”

Most relevant to our discussion today is that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — centered in mindfulness meditation — has evolved to encompass the management of several health disorders. These include anxiety, depression, skin diseases, pain, immune disorders, hypertension, and diabetes.

Does MBSR work? A systemic review of relevant randomized clinical trials answers in the affirmative. The reviewers concluded this:

“Although the research on MBSR is sparse, MBSR appears to improve the condition of patients suffering from chronic illnesses and helps them cope with a wide variety of clinical problems.”

Meditation and aging

But what about aging? Understanding the malleable determinants of cell aging can help us to understand human longevity better. Small pieces of genetic material on the tips of our DNA offer a starting place for understanding the aging process. These protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes are telomeres.One Key to Living LongerI GIVE YOU the most extensive population-based study examining the link between adherence to a Mediterranean diet and…medium.com

Telomere shortening and replicative senescence appear to be indicators of body aging. Researchers examined eleventh studies comparing meditating subjects with individuals in control conditions to determine the effects of mindfulness meditation on telomeres.

The individuals in the meditation groups had longer telomeres than those in control conditions. A more significant number of hours of meditation appeared associated with a more significant impact on telomere biology. This meta-analysis suggests mediation may slow telomere shortening.

My take

Meditation practice may have beneficial effects on telomere regulation, in addition to its known positive effects on anxiety and other health problems. Do you practice some form of mindfulness? I have done Vinyasa flow yoga and, more recently, very much enjoy the simple practice of box breathing. Here’s a short piece I wrote about the practice:Box BreathingLearn the steps of box breathing and discover how it can help relieve anxiety and stress. Watch a GIF that helps you…www.healthline.com

Thank you for joining me.

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Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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