Q: In this interview we’ll be discussing how meditation slows the aging process, and the latest scientific research on this issue. Before I ask questions, do you have any general observations you’d like to share?
PVH: Yes. About four months ago some reporters from India who were visiting the United States and touring Ananda Village interviewed me. I was surprised that one of the main things they wanted to know was how my patients who meditated regularly and lived the Ananda lifestyle differed from my other patients. After thinking about it for a moment I said, “Well, on average, they appear to be about 10 years younger.”
Indirectly, the reporters had touched on the concept of biological vs. chronological age. Although we can’t control our chronological age, we now know that we can have a significant impact on our biological age.
Q: What’s the difference between a person’s chronological age and his or her biological age?
PVH: Biological age is based on the actual health of the body, not on the number of years a person has lived. If there are five people in a room who are all 50 years old chronologically, some of them, because of poor health, might look 70 years old, whereas one or two might look about 35 or 40 years old. All five have the same chronological age but they have different biological ages.
People who have abused their bodies often appear much older than their chronological age. Drug users, especially those who have used methamphetamines, can appear as much as 30 or 40 years older.
Q: In the last 10-15 years, there have been a number of important scientific discoveries relating to the aging process, especially the discovery of telomeres and telomerase. Can you tell us what telomeres and telomerase are and how they relate to the aging process?
PVH: Telomeres (TEEL-o-meers) are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. As a helpful visual analogy, telomeres have been compared to the caps at the end of shoelaces. The health of the telomeres dictates how quickly a cell ages. Telomerase is an enzyme produced by the cells that protects the telomeres and keeps them healthy.
Q: Can you explain in a bit more detail how telomeres and telomerase affect the aging process?
PVH: Yes. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres open, and the cell makes copies of its chromosomes so that the two new cells will have genetic material identical to the parent cell.
However, with each cell division, the telomeres gradually shorten, and this shortening of the telomeres reflects the cell’s aging process. We now know that the average lengths of the telomeres are indicative of the overall health of the body. Long telomeres are usually a sign that the cells are healthy and that the person is young biologically.
The main function of the enzyme telomerase is to keep the telomeres from wearing down and shortening too quickly. As cells repeatedly divide, the cells’ production of telomerase decreases and the telomeres grow shorter. Telomerase and telomeres are both very good indicators of a person’s overall health and biological age.
Q: Do most human cells divide?
PVH: Yes, and probably the biggest difference is how quickly they do. Cells of the cornea replicate extremely quickly. A scratched cornea will heal in 24 to 36 hours. But bones, when injured, take months to heal because the bone cells grow much more slowly.
Q: I’d like to turn now to the question of how meditation affects the aging process, specifically how it affects telomeres and telomerase. I understand that there are several recent studies which look directly at this issue. Is that correct?
PVH: Yes. The process by which meditation slows aging is by reducing the effects of stress on the body. High stress levels negatively affect telomere lengths and telomerase levels.
A very rigorous study in 2000 examined 58 mothers, half of whom were the main caregivers for a chronically ill child. The other half (the control group) were caring for healthy children.
The mothers caring for chronically ill children had significantly shorter telomeres and significantly lower telomerase levels than the mothers of healthy children. The more stresssed these mothers said they were, the lower their telomerase levels and the shorter their telomeres. All the women in the study were the same age chronologically, but some of them were ten years older biologically.
From this study we learned that feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it also ages us.
Q: Is it correct to say, then, that meditation slows aging by reducing the effects of stress on the body?
PVH: Yes. Reducing stress is a key step in the process. By improving our bodies’ handling of stress, meditation slows the decline in telomerase levels and the shortening of telomeres.
Q: What do the scientific studies tell us about the effect of meditation on telomeres and telomerase?
PVH: We’ve learned that meditation can significantly increase the enzyme telomerase. In 2010 there was a three-month study of the effects of intensive mindfulness meditation on telomerase. (the “Shamatha Project”) All 30 participants attended group meditations twice a day and also practiced meditation individually, for a total of about six hours a day.
At the end of three months, the telomerase levels of the meditators was 30% higher than in the control group — a surprising and very significant increase. This study looked only at telomerase, not at telomeres, but we know that higher levels of telomerase improve telomere lengths.
Q: Did any of the meditation studies focus specifically on telomere lengths?
PVH: Yes. There was second five-year study (published in 2013) of 25 men with low-risk prostate cancer and a carefully matched control group. The men being studied made a number of lifestyle changes, but meditation was their main stress-reduction practice.
At the end of the five years, the group that meditated experienced an approximately 10% increase in telomere lengths. The control group, by contrast, experienced a 3% decrease. The 10% increase among the meditators was especially significant because telomeres usually shorten with age, as they did with the control group. In other words, the meditators had become biologically younger.
Q: I understand that Dr. Dean Ornish, one of the researchers, emphasized that the findings concerning telomere lengths could be “generalized” because they were based on a blood test. Can you explain what he means?
PVH: It means that physicians don’t have to do tissue biopsies or bone scans to monitor a person’s telomeres or telomerase. We can determine average telomere lengths from a standard blood test, which includes a person’s immune cells. From that we can determine whether the person’s telomeres are healthy and measure their average length. Other research has confirmed that these immune cells can give us a very good idea of a person’s overall health, based on telomere lengths.
Q: The third meditation study, conducted by scientists at UCLA and published in 2013, focused on dementia caregivers. What did this study add to our knowledge of how meditation slows aging?
PVH: The researchers selected a very good group to study because caregivers for dementia patients are among the most stressed people I deal with in my medical practice.
Participants in the study did a form of meditation called “kirtan kriya” for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. The control group listened each day to relaxing music. The telomerase levels of both groups were assessed before and after the eight weeks. Those who practiced meditation had significantly higher telomerase levels than the control group.
Q: In the Spring 2013 Clarity Magazine interview, you discussed scientific studies showing that meditation is a very important safeguard against stress-related inflammatory diseases caused by a surge in cortisol levels. (Examples include cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and neurological diseases.)
At that time, we did not know about the research on the effect of meditation on telomeres and telomerase. How does this research tie in with stress-related inflammatory diseases?
PVH: We are learning that meditation offsets the stress that causes a large number of these inflammatory diseases, and thus helps to maintain healthy telomeres and telomerase levels.
Q: So if people are aging prematurely because of the impact of inflammatory diseases on telomeres and telomerase, meditation also counters this process?
PVH: Yes. We now know that meditating as little as 12 minutes a day has a beneficial effect on both telomerase and telomeres. The longer one meditates the greater the benefit to the aging process and one’s overall health.
Q: One researcher suggested that if people knew their telomere lengths, it might encourage them to live in a way that reduced their disease risk. But she also noted that trying to motivate people in this way is not a familiar model for the medical world.
PVH: That’s true. It’s a new and different way of motivating people. But I’ve seen in my medical practice that giving an objective measure to someone who needs to change a lifestyle pattern can be a very effective motivator.
For example, people who smoke cigarettes tend to have high levels of carbon monoxide in their blood. I’ve found that using a carbon monoxide monitor that we can clip on a person’s finger, and test at every visit, has been a surprisingly effective way of helping the person quit smoking. The meter gives the person instant feedback on the benefits of smoking less.
Q: Do you think having a way to measure telomere lengths might have a similar effect?
PVH: Yes: We’re very close to having such an option. In response to the growing number of people who have asked to have their telomeres measured, one of the leading scientists in telomere research has started a company. The company plans to begin offering telomere testing to the public this year, 2014. Companies that already offer similar tests charge from $300 to $700. Telomere testing through a simple blood test would encourage people who are stressed to start meditating at least 15 minutes a day, and hopefully longer.
Peter Van Houten lives at Ananda Village and is the founder and Medical Director of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village. He frequently lectures and writes on the brain and other “yoga and science” topics.