Recently, I have been reading a lot about the longevity topic: while pharmacological and diet interventions such as metformin intake or intermittent fasting are being studied, I noticed that meditation was also mentioned regularly. At first I was sceptical, but after a bit of reading I started to think that there was surely more than that.
Let’s be honest, when we think about meditation, we picture either a shady New Age movement or a sage sitting at the top of a mountain. While it is certainly a way to express spirituality for some, a growing body of evidence supports that its practice actually improves stress-related diseases. It has been shown that meditation acts at a molecular level and reduces levels of stress hormones such as cortisol 1 but that it also impacts our own epigenetics. Could the expression “Mind over Matter” be true?
Definition of Epigenetics: The study of how your behaviours and environment can change the way your genes work, without altering the primary DNA sequence. 2
The epigenetic clock is a biomarker that links the level of methylated DNA in a genome to the chronological age of a subject. It has been found that a deviation between this clock and the actual age provides information regarding the epigenetic age acceleration, and that faster epigenetic ageing is associated with pathologies ranging from obesity to cancer 3,4. A group of researchers compared this rate between non-meditators and long-term meditators. While the rate was increasing from the younger controls to the older controls, this observation was not realized for the meditators group. The longer the subjects were practising meditation, the slower the rate was increasing 5. The researchers suggest that meditation could provide a protective effect against epigenetic ageing and could be potentially used as a way to prevent age-related diseases.
Another biomarker of ageing is the size of telomeres. Telomeres are regions of repetitive sequences found at each end of our chromosomes, protecting the DNA from various damages. Their size reduces each time a cell divides, ultimately leading to dysfunctions and cellular death. To counter that, our body produces an enzyme called telomerase that replenishes these sequences but is not 100% efficient. Based on population studies, shorter telomeres have been associated with earlier onset of diseases such as diabetes6 or cardiovascular diseases7.
One trial tried to separate the effects of meditation from a regular relaxing time. To study that, they sent non-meditators to a resort for 6 days and compared different markers with a regular meditators group. (This sounds like a great study to be part of.)
What was found is that the meditators group had higher telomerase activities, suggesting that their telomeres’ size could be stabilized over-time, providing a potential protective effect 8.
You surely noticed that all these findings were balanced with words such as “suggest”, “could” etc. While meditation by itself is surely not a solution to solve ageing & age-related diseases, it still received encouraging evidence of its benefits. This kind of study is really complicated to design and more extensive trials, with more extensive follow-ups need to be realized to better assess the long-term effects of such lifestyle interventions.
Whatever technique is employed, the goal is the same: focusing on the breath and finding mental stillness. To name a few, famous book writer Yuval Noah Harari 9 or film director Martin Scorsese 10 are themselves practising meditation. While it is not a guarantee of any kind, it is definitely a useful tool to find focus during a creative process.
Ageing & longevity are gaining more and more interest from the public and the private sectors11. Scientists are exploring ways to age not only longer but also better. Just like doing exercise is good for us, could meditation help us to live longer & healthier lives?
1. Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M. & Ski, C. F. Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J. Psychiatr. Res. 95, 156–178 (2017).
2. CDC. What is Epigenetics? | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm (2020).
3. Obesity accelerates epigenetic aging of human liver | PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/43/15538/.
4. Epigenetic Aging: More Than Just a Clock When It Comes to Cancer | Cancer Research. https://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/80/3/367.
5. Chaix, R. et al. Epigenetic clock analysis in long-term meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology 85, 210–214 (2017).
6. Zhao, J., Miao, K., Wang, H., Ding, H. & Wang, D. W. Association between Telomere Length and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE 8, e79993 (2013).
7. D’Mello Matthew J.J. et al. Association Between Shortened Leukocyte Telomere Length and Cardiometabolic Outcomes. Circ. Cardiovasc. Genet. 8, 82–90 (2015).
8. Epel, E. S. et al. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Transl. Psychiatry 6, e880–e880 (2016).
9. Klein, E. Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, on how meditation made him a better historian. Vox https://www.vox.com/2017/2/28/14745596/yuval-harari-sapiens-interview-meditation-ezra-klein (2017).
10. Shen, L. The secret to how legendary movie director Martin Scorsese and hedge-fund titan Ray Dalio stay grounded. Business Insider https://www.businessinsider.com/scorcese-and-dalio-on-trascendental-meditation-2015-11.
11. The Longevity Industry will be the Biggest and Most Complex Industry in Human History | LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/longevity-industry-biggest-most-complex-human-history-colangelo/.