The practice of meditation didn’t gain popularity in the Western world until the 1960s. Since then, however, numerous scientific studies have shown the massive benefits individuals obtain from regular practice, with one of these benefits relating to growing old. In fact, these studies have shown a clear correlation between meditation and aging, proving that regular meditation practices can slow and even reverse what’s scientifically referred to as biological age.
The Scientific Study of Meditation:
In 1958, just one year after the release of the wildly popular book ‘On The Road,’ celebrated American author Jack Kerouac published a lesser-known, but perhaps more culturally significant, title called ‘The Dharma Bums.’ Kerouac’s newly found celebrity, to go along with his interest in Eastern religion, stoked Americans’ curiosity about meditation and the practice’s popularity has continually grown to this day.
Numerous famous musicians who were inspired to start meditating after reading Kerouac’s work, such as The Beatles, also played a role in pioneering the mindfulness revolution that is currently taking place in the West. Up until the late 50s and early 60s, the benefits of meditation were largely a mystery to Westerners, but today it should be considered a dynamic part of our cultural well-being.
As interest in meditation grew over the last 60 years, so too has the scientific research into the practice’s benefits, and over the past 10 years, a seemingly countless number of studies have shown the psychological, emotional, and physical benefits individuals receive from forming a regular practice.
Psychologically and emotionally speaking, it is widely believed that meditation lowers individuals’ stress and anxiety levels while increasing their feelings of subjective well-being. Physically speaking, meditators also see beneficial changes as lower blood pressure levels, reduction in physical pain, and boosted immune systems are some of the benefits that result from sitting regularly.
Amazingly enough, meditation is so powerful that science is now telling us it is possible to slow, and even reverse, the aging process of human beings. To gain an understanding of how practicing meditation combats the aging process we can look at a number of studies that verify this truth, but it is first necessary to gain an understanding of how the human body ages in different ways.
Two Ages of the Human Body:
To measure the age-reducing effects that meditation provides individuals, who regularly practice, we need to evaluate the human aging process in two ways. The first, chronological age, is the age we are all familiar with and is reflective of the time that has passed since our birth.
The second type of age, which shows how meditation slows and reverses the aging process, is called biological age, which illuminates how an individual’s cells, tissue, and organs progress throughout their chronological lifespan.
To measure an individual’s biological age, scientists can look at a number of biological elements found in all humans, with one being telomeres. By studying these chromosome-protecting caps found at the end of our DNA strands, which can be thought of as resembling the caps you find at the end of shoelaces, scientists have shown how meditation can slow the aging process.
In addition to the measurement of telomeres, other key scientific testing models can show how an individual’s biological age differs from their ‘actual age’. For example, testing biological functions such as hearing, vision, and blood pressure can help give an approximation of an individual’s biological age because these mechanisms deteriorate steadily over time and can be measured against a variety of life stages and age groups.
While our societies are primarily concerned with the chronological age of individuals, the biological age is certainly a better measure of health and well-being. Advancements in scientific testing methods and a newfound interest in studying the health benefits of meditation have made one thing clear: Meditation positively alters the biological age of practitioners.
Meditation and Aging:
In 1982, psychologist RK Wallace pioneered the scientific study of meditation when he released results from a case study that showed a direct correlation between biological age reduction and meditation. Today, newer studies continue to show the positive and age-reducing benefits that individuals receive from regular practice. We will first look at Wallace’s study, before moving on to more recent work, conducted by Noble Prize-winning Molecular Biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, which illuminates the effects meditation has on telomeres and the aging process.
When RK Wallace set out to determine the connection between Transcendental Meditation (TM) and biological age, few, if any, studies had previously been conducted and significantly less was known about the aging of cells. To get an accurate read of individuals’ biological age, Wallace and his team looked at 3 distinctive components of individuals: auditory threshold, near-pointed vision, and systolic blood pressure levels. Throughout the study, Wallace examined 84 individuals who fell into the three groups of 1.) non-meditators, 2.) short-term meditators with 0-5 years of practice, and 3.) long-term meditators with 5+ years of experience.
The results indicated that short-term meditators had a biological age that averaged 5 years fewer in compassion to similarly aged non-meditators, and long-term meditations had an average biological age reduction of 12 years compared to non-meditators.
It was Wallace’s initial work in 1982 that gave way to new and exciting forms of research. Today, one of the foremost leaders studying the health benefits of the practice is Molecular Biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the prestigious Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for discovering the previously mentioned telomeres. But before we dive into her work, it’ll be important to gain an understanding of the role telomeres play in the human aging process.
Cell division is a commonly known aspect of human biology. Each and every time that our cells divide, the protective caps (telomeres) wear down, and our cells’ ability to function effectively becomes hindered. When our telomeres become worn, we age faster and become more susceptible to disease. Blackburn and her team have determined that the safety of our telomeres is largely controlled by the levels of an enzyme, found in each of us, called telomerase.
The levels of telomerase in individuals can fluctuate over time, which would indicate that at various times we may have telomerase levels that are more or less protective. A person with a younger biological age would have higher levels of telomerase and longer, more protected, telomeres. While the shortening of telomeres is a natural human process, studies have indicated that various factors such as stress, environment, and cognitive processes play a role in determining our levels of telomerase and ultimately the length of our telomeres.
Blackburn’s team has conducted a number of different studies that show the positive effects meditation can have on practitioners’ levels of telomerase, which ultimately results in a slowing and reversal of the aging process.
In one of her most notable studies, Blackburn sent willing participants to a 3-month meditation retreat at The Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. After individuals completed the study, their telomerase levels were compared to a similar group of individuals who were on a waiting list for the course.
The results indicated that the levels of telomerase in new meditators measured 30% higher than in individuals who were on a waiting list for the course.
In another study, telomerase levels were measured between two groups of dementia caregivers over an 8-week period. One group was taught an ancient meditation practice called Kirtan Kriya and the other group listened to relaxing music.
Blackburn wasn’t surprised to learn that the group of meditating caregivers saw significantly higher telomerase activity in comparison to the control group who only listened to music.
As research on the topic expands, studies similar to these will continue to show the positive health outcomes that meditators receive.
By looking at biological aspects such as hearing, vision, blood pressure, and telomerase levels, it is easy to see how a regular meditation practice has the ability to slow, and potentially even reduce, your biological age.
This is all obviously good news, but perhaps the best news of all is that the benefits you receive from meditation don’t stop here and can be experienced across every area of life and dimension of self.