No one's claiming mindful meditation is the fountain of youth, but there may be something in it that protects people against those wrinkles a bit longer.
In a recent CNN report, a Yale biologist named Elizabeth Blackburn unveiled how meditation practices resist stress's aging effects.
Blackburn has spent decades researching this topic in one form or another. In the 1970s, the scientist delved into nature to answer some of human's pulsing questions. She sequenced the chromosome tips of a single-celled freshwater creature called Tetrahymena, "pond scum" as she dubbed it. The researcher found a repeating DNA motif that serves as a type of chromosome shield, described as telomeres, which were later found on human chromosomes too.
These protective caps go on the end of our chromosomes each time DNA is copied, but they dwindle and wear down over time. When they become too short, our cells begin to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a key part of the aging process.
Years later, Blackburn and her colleague Elissa Epel, a postdoc from University of California, San Francisco's psychiatry department, introduced a new factor into the studies: stress.
"I was interested in the idea that if we look deep within cells we might be able to measure the wear and tear of stress and daily life," Epel told CNN.
Many of us consider stress a mere mental phenomenon, but there is a deeply physical side to stress.
"Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older," pioneering biologist Hans Selye once said back in the 1930s.
Epel and Blackburn wanted to discover that scar.
So they conducted a study of mothers going through one of the biggest anxiety-producing situations that exist: caring for a chronically ill child. After four years, researchers collected blood samples from 58 women and measured the telomere length and levels of telomerase.
The results showed that the more stressed the mothers were, the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase.
The women most plagued by chronic anxiety had telomeres that translated into 10 years of aging in comparison to those who were less stressed. In other words, there is a very real connection between our life experiences and the molecular health of our cells.
Meditation: The Anti-Stress Soldier
Blackburn's work eventually led her to meditation. For scientists neck deep in the quantifiable and measurable, it may seem odd that molecular studies bridged the gap toward mindful meditation, an ancient, abstract practice focused on breathing and soul searching.
Based on research trials, the Yale scientist analyzed ways to protect telomeres from the effects of stress. Eating healthy and social support were shown to help. But one of the most effective methods was none other than meditation.
Mindfulness techniques are apparently capable of slowing the erosion of telomeres and possibly even lengthening them again, according to CNN. In one project, participants who completed a three-month meditation course at a Shambhala mountain retreat had a 30 percent high levels of telomerase than a similar group who did not partake in the course.
For a different 2013 study, researchers found that men with low-risk prostate cancer who undertook comprehensive lifestyle changes, such as meditation, maintained a higher activity level of telomerase than men in a control group.
Almost all of the studies – though small – point in this direction.
"Being present in your activities and in your interactions is precious, and it's rare these days with all of the multitasking we do," Epel told the source. "I do think that in general we've got a society with scattered attention, particularly when people are highly stressed and don't have the resources to just be present wherever they are."
A master of meditation, Ilchi Lee points out that advancements in science are finally explaining things that meditators have experienced for generations. It all underlines the same verdict: Mindful meditation benefits the body and brain.