Meditation: Slowing things down, including ageing

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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They say that silence is golden. Perhaps they say so because in our stress-heavy and tech-connected lives it is almost as rare and hard to find as any precious metal.

Our patterns of activity – mental and physical- are so routine and intense that even when we get the chance to truly switch off, we don’t know how. There are too many distractions jostling for our attention, too many concerns and worries to turn our thoughts to. Silence and reflection have become seemingly unattainable. Yet there are ways of manufacturing a sense of calm, no matter what the situation or place. This is one of the benefits of regular meditation.

Stress tests

Elizabeth Blackburn is a biochemist at the University of California. In the 1980s, her work on biological erosion looked at how telomeres – protective caps at the end of our chromosomes – get shorter with time, resulting in cell malfunction. The process is better known to us as ageing. In her research Blackburn also discovered telomerase – an enzyme that can protect and rebuild telomeres. The quality and scope of Blackburn’s resulted in her being awarded a Nobel Prize.

Yet her research took an unpredictable turn in 2000 when she was approached by Elissa Epel, a postdoc from UCSF s psychiatry department. Epel’s research interest was with the damage that chronic stress could cause the body. Her work revealed that stressful events could leave a scar on our systems; that is, prolonged stress resulted in biological ageing.

Working together, the two researchers discovered that that the stress hormone cortisol served to reduce the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation the physiological fallout of psychological stress seemed to erode telomeres directly.



The importance of learning to manage stress therefore became clinically apparent. Blackburn began to measure the telomarase levels of subjects who had been sent on a three-month-long meditation course in Colorado. She found that their cell-protecting telomerase levels were 30 per cent higher than a non-meditating group. The meditating group had learned to more effectively manage the psychological stresses of everyday life, thereby reducing the damaging impact that mental anxieties were shown to have on the body.

Another study, published in 2013, involved dementia caregivers. It found that volunteers who did an ancient chanting meditation known as ‘Kirtan Kriya’, for a mere 12 minutes a day over an eight-week period, showed significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group who listened to relaxing music.

Changing attitudes

Attitudes towards meditation in the scientific community have slowly evolved over the years. The mounting trove of academic research into the virtues of meditation has become hard for even the most cynical to ignore or dismiss easily.

Subsequent neuroscientific studies in have also shown that the benefits of meditation can be enjoyed soon after taking up the practice – even short courses in meditation have been shown to help bring about structural changes in the brain. Those who integrate meditation into their daily lives regularly report a steadier sense of calm, an increased ability to focus, and a greater awareness of the present moment.

Indeed, generating this awareness is at the core of meditative practice. Learning to calm the mind and inhabit rather than inhibit each living moment is key to health and happiness. As put into words by the Buddha: ‘The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.’

Frank Bolger

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