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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 26-4-11

Meditaters Live Longer
By Jo Marchant, The Observer, Sunday 24 April 2011
Visitors to the Shambhala Mountain Centre in Colorado meditate in silence
for up to 10 hours every day, emulating the lifestyle that monks have
chosen for centuries in mountain refuges from India to Japan. But is it
doing them any good? For two three-month retreats held in 2007, this haven
for the eastern spiritual tradition opened its doors to western science.
As attendees pondered the "four immeasurables" of love, compassion, joy
and equanimity, a laboratory squeezed into the basement bristled with
scientific equipment from brain and heart monitors to video cameras and
centrifuges. The aim: to find out exactly what happens to people who
After several years of number-crunching, data from the so-called Shamatha
project is finally starting to be published. So far the research has shown
some not hugely surprising psychological and cognitive changes -
improvements in perception and wellbeing, for example. But one result in
particular has potentially stunning implications: that by protecting caps
called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation might help to
delay the process of ageing.
It's the kind of claim more often associated with pseudoscience. Indeed,
since researchers first started studying meditation, with its close links
to religion and spirituality, they have had a tough time gaining
scientific credibility. "A great danger in the field is that many
researchers are also meditators, with a feeling about how powerful and
useful these practices are," says Charles Raison, who studies mind-body
interactions at Emory University in Atlanta. "There has been a tendency
for people to be attempting to prove what they already know."
But a new generation of brain-imaging studies and robust clinical trials
is helping to change that. Scientists from a range of fields are starting
to compile evidence that rather than simply being a transient mental or
spiritual experience, meditation may have long-term implications for
physical health.
There are many kinds of meditation, including transcendental meditation,
in which you focus on a repetitive mantra, and compassion meditation,
which involves extending feelings of love and kindness to fellow living
beings. One of the most studied practices is based on the Buddhist concept
of mindfulness, or being aware of your own thoughts and surroundings.
Buddhists believe it alleviates suffering by making you less caught up in
everyday stresses - helping you to appreciate the present instead of
continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.
"You pay attention to your own breath," explains Sara Lazar, a
neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation at Massachusetts
general hospital in Boston. "If your mind wanders, you don't get
discouraged, you notice the thought and think, 'OK'."
Small trials have suggested that such meditation creates more than
spiritual calm. Reported physical effects include lowering blood pressure,
helping psoriasis to heal, and boosting the immune response in vaccine
recipients and cancer patients. In a pilot study in 2008, Willem Kuyken,
head of the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, showed that
mindfulness meditation was more effective than drug treatment in
preventing relapse in patients with recurrent depression. And in 2009,
David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that it
slowed disease progression in patients with HIV.
Most of these trials have involved short courses of meditation aimed at
treating specific conditions. The Shamatha project, by contrast, is an
attempt to see what a longer, more intensive course of meditation might do
for healthy people. The project was co-ordinated by neuroscientist
Clifford Saron of the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of
California, Davis. His team advertised in Buddhist publications for people
willing to spend three months in an intensive meditation retreat, and
chose 60 participants. Half of them attended in the spring of 2007, while
the other half acted as a control group before heading off for their own
retreat in the autumn.
It sounds simple enough, but the project has taken eight years to organise
and is likely to end up costing around $4m (partly funded by private
organisations with an interest in meditation, including the Fetzer
Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation). As well as shipping laptops
all over the world to carry out cognitive tests on the volunteers before
the study started, Saron's team built a hi-tech lab in a dorm room beneath
the Shambhala centre's main hall, enabling them to subject participants
and controls to tests at the beginning, middle and end of each retreat,
and worked with "a village" of consulting scientists who each wanted to
study different aspects of the meditators' performance. "It's a heroic
effort," says neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, who studies meditation at
the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.
Many of the tests focused on changes in cognitive ability or regulation of
emotions. Soft white caps trailing wires and electrodes measured the
meditators' brain waves as they completed gruelling computerised tasks to
test their powers of attention, and video recordings captured split-second
changes in facial expressions as they watched images of suffering and war.
But psychologist Elissa Epel, from the University of California, San
Francisco (UCSF), wanted to know what the retreat was doing to the
participants' chromosomes, in particular their telomeres. Telomeres play a
key role in the ageing of cells, acting like a clock that limits their
lifespan. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, unless an
enzyme called telomerase builds them back up. When telomeres get too
short, a cell can no longer replicate, and ultimately dies.
It's not just an abstract concept. People with shorter telomeres are at
greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and
degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And they
die younger.
Epel has been collaborating with UCSF's Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared
the 2009 Nobel physiology or medicine prize for her work on telomeres, to
investigate whether telomeres are affected by psychological factors. They
found that at the end of the retreat, meditators had significantly higher
telomerase activity than the control group, suggesting that their
telomeres were better protected. The researchers are cautious, but say
that in theory this might slow or even reverse cellular ageing. "If the
increase in telomerase is sustained long enough," says Epel, "it's logical
to infer that this group would develop more stable and possibly longer
telomeres over time."
Pagnoni has previously used brain imaging to show that meditation may
protect against the cognitive decline that occurs as we age. But the
Shamatha project is the first to suggest that meditation plays a role in
cellular ageing. If that link is confirmed, he says, "that would be
So how could focusing on your thoughts have such impressive physical
effects? The assumption that meditation simply induces a state of
relaxation is "dead wrong", says Raison. Brain-imaging studies suggest
that it triggers active processes within the brain, and can cause physical
changes to the structure of regions involved in learning, memory, emotion
regulation and cognitive processing.
The question of how the immaterial mind affects the material body remains
a thorny philosophical problem, but on a practical level, "our
understanding of the brain-body dialogue has made jaw-dropping advances in
the last decade or two," says Raison. One of the most dramatic links
between the mind and health is the physiological pathways that have
evolved to respond to stress, and these can explain much about how
meditation works.
When the brain detects a threat in our environment, it sends signals to
spur the body into action. One example is the "fight or flight" response
of the nervous system. When you sense danger, your heart beats faster, you
breathe more rapidly, and your pupils dilate. Digestion slows, and fat and
glucose are released into the bloodstream to fuel your next move. Another
stress response pathway triggers a branch of the immune system known as
the inflammatory response.
These responses might help us to run from a mammoth or fight off
infection, but they also damage body tissues. In the past, the trade-off
for short bursts of stress would have been worthwhile. But in the modern
world, these ancient pathways are continually triggered by long-term
threats for which they aren't any use, such as debt, work pressures or low
social status. "Psychological stress activates these pathways in exactly
the same way that infection does," says Raison.
Such chronic stress has devastating effects, putting us at greater risk of
a host of diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression -
and death. It also affects our telomeres. Epel, Blackburn and their
colleagues found in 2004 that stressed mothers caring for a chronically
ill child had shorter telomeres than mothers with healthy children. Their
stress had accelerated the ageing process.
Meditation seems to be effective in changing the way that we respond to
external events. After short courses of mindfulness meditation, people
produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, and mount a smaller
inflammatory response to stress. One study linked meditators' lower stress
to changes in the amygdala - a brain area involved in fear and the
response to threat.
Some researchers think this is the whole story, because the diseases
countered most by meditation are those in which stress plays a major role.
But Epel believes that meditation might also trigger "pathways of
restoration and enhancement", perhaps boosting the parasympathetic nervous
system, which works in opposition to the fight or flight response, or
triggering the production of growth hormone.
In terms of the psychological mechanisms involved, Raison thinks that
meditation allows people to experience the world as less threatening. "You
reinterpret the world as less dangerous, so you don't get as much of a
stress reaction," he says. Compassion meditation, for example, may help us
to view the world in a more socially connected way. Mindfulness might help
people to distance themselves from negative or stressful thoughts.
The Shamatha project used a mix of mindfulness and compassion meditation.
The researchers concluded that the meditation affected telomerase by
changing the participants' psychological state, which they assessed using
questionnaires. Three factors in particular predicted higher telomerase
activity at the end of the retreat: increased sense of control (over
circumstances or daily life); increased sense of purpose in life; and
lower neuroticism (being tense, moody and anxious). The more these
improved, the greater the effect on the meditators' telomerase.
For those of us who don't have time for retreats, Epel suggests
"mini-meditations" - focusing on breathing or being aware of our
surroundings - at regular points throughout the day. And though meditation
seems to be a particularly effective route to reducing stress and
protecting telomeres, it's not the only one. "Lots of people have no
interest in meditation, and that's fine," says Creswell. Exercise has been
shown to buffer the effects of stress on telomeres, for example, while
stress management programmes and writing emotional diaries can help to
delay the progression of HIV.
Indeed, Clifford Saron argues that the psychological changes caused by the
Shamatha retreat - increased sense of control and purpose in life - are
more important than the meditation itself. Simply doing something we love,
whether meditating or gardening, may protect us from stress and maybe even
help us to live longer. "The news from this paper is the profound impact
of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find
For a scientific conclusion it sounds scarily spiritual. But researchers
warn that in our modern, work-obsessed society we are increasingly living
on autopilot, reacting blindly to tweets and emails instead of taking the
time to think about what really matters. If we don't give our minds a
break from that treadmill, the physical effects can be scarily real.