It’s seven in the evening, on a beach in the north of Mallorca, Spain. The sun is low on the horizon and the evening breeze is cooling us. I feel physically tired from my 90 mins martial arts training and mentally drained from my stressful day at work. It’s hard to unwind. Quan, my friend and Wing Chun instructor offers to teach me meditation. After a brief explanation, we sit cross-legged facing the ocean. 30 mins later, I emerged from this meditation a new man. I had tapped into my inner ocean of calm and tranquillity, and therefore had reduced my stress and anxiety and somehow felt physically refreshed. This was 12 years ago, and since then I have not stopped learning about meditation and of course, practising it. At the time all this felt a bit mystical to me. Now backed by research and science, I realise the benefits of meditation far exceed my imagination. In this article, I want to share with you how meditation can be beneficial for us, in our pursuit of a happier, healthier and longer life.
In a research from the University of California, 30 participants were asked to meditate for 6 hours a day for 3 months. Their meditation was centred on mindfulness, focusing solely on breathing, being present in the moment, and on feelings of love, kindness and compassion towards others.
After the three months, they compared them with non-meditators. The meditators had on average about 30% more activity of the enzyme telomerase than the non-meditators. Telomerase is responsible for repairing telomeres, the structures located on the ends of chromosomes, which, like the plastic caps at the tips of shoelaces, prevent the chromosome from unravelling and fraying. Each time a cell reproduces, its telomeres become shorter and less effective at protecting the chromosome, and this, in turn, is a cause of ageing. As the chromosome becomes more and more vulnerable, cell copying becomes sloppier and eventually stops when the telomeres disintegrate completely.
Shorter telomere length in cells is also linked with poorer immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
So this implies, people with higher levels of telomerase can possibly slow down ageing and show overall psychological improvements. The longer the telomere, the more times a cell can divide and refresh.
For many years it’s been widely accepted in the scientific community of the benefits of meditation. In less than 8 weeks of regular practise, one can notice a substantial reduction in stress and anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, and enhanced happiness. Although these benefits are fairly immediate, meditation practices can have a long-lasting positive impact, that can potentially add years to our lives and improve cognitive function well into old age.
Starting at the cellular level, meditation seems to affect the physical body in different ways. Scientists have isolated length of telomeres and telomerase as indicators of cellular aging.
Telomere shortening happens naturally as we age, but research now shows that it can be accelerated by stress, speeding up the ageing process of the body.
In 2004 research, Elissa S. Epel and her team found that psychological stress is significantly correlated with shorter telomere length in leukocytes, antibody cells that fight disease. The study compared telomere length of two groups of premenopausal mothers. One caring for a chronically ill child and pre-identified to have higher objective stress and the other of mothers with a healthy child with lower objective stress. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress in the study had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of one decade of additional ageing compared to low-stress women. In a 2009 follow-up paper, Epel’s research team suggested that mindfulness meditation may also have potentially positive effects on the preservation of telomere length and telomerase activity.
As they predicted, results revealed that those with more experience in meditation had longer telomere length overall, compared to women non-meditators. These findings further support meditation’s positive effect on reducing stress levels and healthy cellular ageing.
Another way meditation may help slow ageing is through its effects on the brain. Depending on the individual, our brain’s grey matter ( part of the brain that helps with our, learning, memorising, focusing, balancing, coordination and more…) volume typically decreases from the age of 30 at varying rates. With time we also lose white matter ( responsible for the smooth and proper operation of the nervous system) volume and enter a slow structural degeneration. Meditation has been shown to alter our individual brain structure and potentially reduce this brain degeneration, in order for us to maintain our cognitive function sharp and thrive for many years. The effects on the brain don’t stop there. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) researchers have shown that cortical thickness of meditators aged 40-50 was similar to non-meditators age 20-30. So meditation may support the preservation of brain structure over time.
It is clear that meditation cannot stop the natural ageing process. However, these findings strongly suggest that meditation is a helpful tool to slow down the brain structure degeneration, reducing stress levels and adding years or possibly a decade to your lifespan.
It’s a no brainer in my books, and it’s one of my non negotiable strategies for living to 100.
It has become a pillar of my daily routine. Up at 5 am, when my body is rested, and my mind is still in that semi daydreaming state. It’s the best moment to focus solely on breathing, feeling love and compassion for others, being in the present moment and filling my mind with gratitude.
That’s how I start my day. In these challenging times, that many of us are experiencing, I have found huge comfort and peace in my meditation practice.
I hope you try it too!
Take care my friends until next week.
Smart Living To 100