Meditation’s Potential Age-Defying Effects
Does Meditation Reverse Aging? (Slowing Brain Degeneration)
As we age, certain areas of the brain begin to shrink. Learning new things and processing complex concepts becomes more challenging. Memory fades and attention wanes, even for healthy adults. Recent research on the anti-aging impact of meditation indicates that as little as 15 minutes of daily practice can have protective effects which prevent cognitive decline.
Longitudinal studies of the brains of lifelong meditators find that their brain age, or biological age, appears much younger than non-meditators of the same calendar age. These studies of expert meditators suggest that meditation may be associated with slowed biological aging.
So how does meditation slow aging in your brain? Researchers think the answer is related to meditation’s effects on subtelomeric DNA methylation. This biological process shortens telomeres (the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes) and is closely associated with age-related disease. Meditation seems to protect, and may even enhance, telomere length to slow the rate of cellular aging.
Scientific imaging finds meditation can also prevent the loss of gray matter that naturally occurs with age. As gray matter declines, loss of cognitive function follows, as the brain loses volume and neurons lose the ability to communicate with one another. In long-term meditators, age-related loss of gray matter volume is less prevalent than it is in the general population.
Expert meditators may have better preserved brains than others due to the cognitive-enhancing benefits of meditation and its effect on reducing stress, improving mood, and increasing self-compassion and acceptance.
Building a Cognitive Reserve
If the loss of cognitive function that comes with aging is inevitable, we can perhaps mitigate the negative outcomes associated with this decline by building a cognitive reserve. One way to do this is to avoid the lifestyle factors that lead to shorter telomeres. These include smoking, poor diet, lack of sleep or being sedentary.
We can also strengthen our cognitive capacity. Research shows that meditation, because it combines brain state training with brain network training, is a more effective means of strengthening cognitive function than brain games designed for this same purpose.
Stress and Aging
Studies on stress and aging find those who experience significant stress, abuse, or trauma tend to have shorter telomeres and lower levels of an enzyme called telomerase. The telomerase enzyme helps keep our cells youthful by adding length (DNA) to telomeres. Anytime the stress hormone cortisol is present, telomerase activity slows down. Chronic stress, which induces oxidative stress and inflammation, erodes telomeres directly.
Minimizing stress helps keep the brain young by protecting telomeres and telomerase. Meditation is a very effective means of minimizing stress and healing trauma. This may be why meditation slows the erosion of telomeres, and can even help lengthen them again.
Mood disorders, such as depression, are also associated with accelerated aging and an increased risk of age-related diseases. This may be due to the correlation between depression and consistent, low-grade systemic inflammation. Inflammation degrades telomere length, leading to cellular aging.
Heart-based meditation practices, such as loving-kindness meditation, are known to improve mood. Sending well wishes to another in the form of loving-kindness meditation helps soften our sense of the self as separate and alone. These types of meditations improve symptoms of depression and in the process, slow biological aging.
In 2016, researchers echoed previous findings that connect our perception of common humanity to improvements in self-compassion. Interestingly, this variable was also associated with longer telomere length. What’s more, they found that a loving acceptance of reality just as it is, is also related to biological youth.
Experiential avoidance is the name for our tendency to skirt circumstances or suppress thoughts and emotions that trigger psychological discomfort, unease or pain. Meditation, on the other hand, teaches us to be aware of whatever is arising, regardless of how it makes us feel.
Higher levels of experiential avoidance are associated with increased psychopathology, and therefore accelerated aging. Meditation promotes mental health, allowing us to be present for the fullness of our human experience, and as it turns out, keeping our brains younger too.
Meditation and Longevity
Many of the longitudinal studies mentioned above were conducted on life-long meditators, those who have been practicing since childhood. However, the age-defying benefits of meditation are not reserved for experts only.
Studies have found that loving-kindness meditation slows aging even in novice practitioners, and just 15 minutes of meditation to induce relaxation can reduce inflammation and thereby minimize telomere degradation.
More studies are needed to further substantiate these effects, but it appears that meditation can certainly help keep us healthy and focused as we age.