Meditation can slow the ageing process, new research suggests
Science and spirituality do not always sit comfortably together but new research is beginning to bridge the gap between faith and fact, confirming what legions of devoted meditators have known for centuries: meditation is good for your health. And there’s more. A recent study at the Shambhala Mountain Centre in Colorado, in the US, into the effects of meditation on health has revealed something unexpected. The initial results of the scientific data collated offer potentially life-changing implications for all those seeking solace in a fast-paced world. Meditation, the findings suggest, can slow the ageing process.
The Shambhala Centre allowed scientists to carry out in depth research studies during two intensive retreats in 2007. A vast array of sophisticated scientific equipment was set up with the objective of finding out exactly what happens to people who meditate. Until now, research has shown unsurprising psychological and cognitive benefits as a result of intensive mediation, including improvements in wellbeing and perception. But one result of the study at Shambhala, which is named the Shamatha Project, has radical implications. By protecting caps called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation might help actually delay the process of growing old.
This kind of claim is more often connected with half-baked science. Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens, wrote in depth about the Shamatha Project in The Observer, stating that historically, researchers looking at the benefits of meditation have had a hard time convincing the scientific community of its value. However, she reveals that recent brain-imaging studies and thorough clinical trials are turning preconceptions on their head. Evidence drawn together by a wide range of scientists indicates that rather than just being a non-specific mental or spiritual experience, meditation can have measurable long-term benefits for physical health.
A key focus of meditation at Shambhala is the Buddhist practice of mindfulness; bringing your awareness, without judgement, to your thoughts, feelings and surroundings in each moment. Buddhists believe that simply sitting with this awareness alleviates suffering, encouraging you to appreciate the present moment instead of continually worrying about the past or future. Reported physical effects of this form of meditation include lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system. In 2008, a pilot study at the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, showed mindfulness meditation to be more effective than drug treatment in preventing patients with depression from relapsing.
The Shamatha Project, which has taken eight years to put together and is expected to cost around $4m upon completion, is an attempt to analyse the effects of a 3-month intensive meditation retreat on healthy people. The study was co-ordinated by neuroscientist Clifford Saron of the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of California. Advertising in Buddhist publications, the team recruited 60 participants, half of which acted as a control group.
Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn (a Nobel Prize winner for medicine) from the University of California, San Francisco, investigated the effects of the retreat upon the participants’ chromosomes and specifically their telomeres, which play a central role in cell ageing. When cells divide, their telomeres become shorter, unless they are rebuilt by an enzyme called telomerase. A cell can no longer replicate once telomeres get too short, meaning people with shorter telomeres die younger. At the end of the retreat, the telomerase activity of the meditators was significantly higher than the control group, indicating that their telomeres (and therefore their chromosomes) were better protected.
So perhaps the key to a longer life is learning to be still and present? Meditation is often said to be a healthy antidote to living and working in a world of ever increasing complexity and demand but it seems that there is now scientific evidence that practiced regularly, it can and indeed does work wonders.