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You may have heard of meditation as a way to calm down stress, improve cognitive function, and support mental health, but, can meditation slow aging? And if so, which type of meditation is the best to increase our healthspan and lifespan?
In this longevity series, we collaborated with Dr. Patti Shelton, MD, a neuroscientist, renowned yoga teacher, and expert in meditation. Dr. Shelton dived into the evidence about the potential benefits of meditation for brain longevity and cellular aging in general, and also shared practical tips and insights she personally practices and often recommends in her practice.
Meditation and longevity
When it comes to longevity and healthspan, one of the most important factors is maintaining our brain function as we get older. Sadly, many of us have had a grandparent or other loved ones go through dementia in their later years, and have watched them disappear slowly, piece by piece.
Obviously, we want to avoid having these devastating changes happen to us, forcing our loved ones to lose us in such a painful way. Living a longer life isn’t worth it if you lose your memories, awareness, and even your personality towards the end. So, protecting brain function is a huge priority for anyone interested in longevity. There are many different ways to do that which we cover in the longevity series – nutrition, supplements, exercise, sleep (see my post on the relationship between sleep and brain longevity).
Another great way which doesn’t always come first in the top anti-aging strategies is meditation. This ancient practice has been getting a lot of attention recently, as research becomes increasingly aware of its power to slow aging. Meditation is one of those natural practices that has benefits both immediately and over the long term – so there are lots of reasons to take advantage of it. It’s also absolutely free, so it’s accessible to everyone. Not to mention it’s easy. All you have to do is nothing.
Meditation may keep your brain younger
Meditation has been around for centuries, but it’s only very recently that researchers have begun to study the effects of this practice on the brain. Exactly what meditation does and how it does it remains somewhat of a mystery, but researchers have found some ways that meditation exerts a demonstrable anti-aging effect on the brain.
Gray matter is the part of the nervous system that’s made up of the cells themselves. By contrast, white matter is made up mainly of axons, which are long tendrils that neurons use to communicate with other neurons. As we age, the amount of gray matter in the brain slowly decreases. Certain areas of the brain are more affected than others; the effect is greatest in the frontal lobes, which are associated with attention and behavioral control, and the temporal lobes, which are involved in emotional processing as well as language processing and other functions.
Studies have shown that people who meditate regularly are protected against this loss of gray matter. They still do have declines in gray matter volume over time; meditation can’t completely stop the aging process. However, the rate of decline is significantly slower in people who meditate regularly than in those who don’t practice meditation.
One recent study estimated brain age via a machine learning algorithm that uses MRI images to calculate brain volume in various areas. At the age of 50, regular meditators (with on average 20 years of meditation practice) had brains that were 7.5 years younger than the brains of a control group of non meditators. That’s a 15% decrease in brain age, simply from practicing meditation for a few minutes a day.
Meditation and telomere length
Meditation may also have wider effects on aging throughout the whole body, through its effect on telomeres. You may be familiar with telomeres and how they serve as an indicator of cellular aging. Just in case you aren’t, here’s a little primer.
Telomeres are “caps” on the ends of chromosomes. There are no genes contained within the telomeres; they’re just repetitive DNA sequences. The function of telomeres is to prevent the ends of your chromosomes from becoming damaged.
In general, each time a cell divides, the telomeres on its chromosomes get shorter. This is because it’s hard for the DNA replication enzymes to act at the very end of a strand of DNA, so they tend to miss just a tiny bit of the DNA at the end each time they copy a chromosome in order to make a new cell. Once the telomeres are gone, then these enzymes will start missing actual genes when they try to replicate the chromosome, and the cell’s function will be affected.
In this way, telomeres serve as a “biological clock.” The shorter the telomeres, the closer the cell is to senescence. Some scientists even believe that senescence is the very function of telomeres.
Although telomeres naturally shorten each time a cell divides, the cell isn’t helpless against this process. There’s an enzyme called telomerase that works to increase the length of telomeres. The more active telomerase is, the slower the telomeres will shorten. Telomere length is correlated with basically every age-related disease.
Studies on some forms of meditation have indicated that having a regular meditation practice is associated with longer telomere lengths. In one study, a group of experienced meditators were shown to have a mean telomere length that was about 10% longer than that of non meditators.
This effect didn’t appear to be explained by other lifestyle factors – something that can always complicate the interpretation of data on meditation, since people who meditate might also be doing other longevity-promoting things, like exercising more. However, in this study, that didn’t seem to be the case; in fact, the meditators were significantly less likely than the control subjects to exercise for at least three hours a week, and yet they were still maintaining longer telomeres than the non meditators.
Meditation, stress and cortisol
There’s still no scientific certainty about exactly how meditation is able to change the rate of aging throughout the body. However, many researchers believe that cortisol and other stress hormones that are known to lead to epigenetic effects harmful to health are at least partly responsible. Meditation helps people to cope better with stress, and regular meditators have lower levels of depression and anxiety than non meditators. Because of this, they also have lower cortisol levels on average. Cortisol tends to cause telomeres to shorten more quickly, and lowering cortisol helps to protect telomeres.
How does meditation exert these anti-aging effects?
According to the evidence, we can say that meditation alters patterns of brain activity. During meditation, a person is practicing maintaining a state of consciousness that’s different from the default pattern. We know that the brain is a “use it or lose it” organ, and neural networks that aren’t activated regularly tend to degenerate much more quickly.
By changing the brain’s pattern of activation away from its usual mode and into a different one, meditation helps to ensure that brain circuits devoted to things like attention and self-awareness are used regularly, so that they’re protected from degeneration.There’s still a lot to learn about meditation and how it works, and further research may well find additional ways that the practice causes benefits. But at this point, the balance of the evidence is pretty overwhelming. Meditation is a powerful anti-aging practice.
How do you meditate for longevity?
Hearing about these anti-aging benefits may make you want to try meditation for yourself. But how do you get started? Do you sit down somewhere and just…sit there? Watching someone meditate doesn’t really help – you can’t tell what they’re doing in there, if they’re doing anything at all. How exactly does meditation work?
The good news is that there are many different ways to meditate, so you can definitely find a way that works for you. Here are three common evidence-based meditation techniques for you to consider. Each of these particular techniques has been found to be effective in studies of meditation. With that said, this doesn’t mean that other techniques aren’t effective. It’s just that not every meditation technique has been specifically studied. But trying one or more of these would be a good place to get started with a new meditation practice.
1: Mindfulness meditation and healthspan
Mindfulness is a very ancient meditation technique. When you’re practicing mindfulness, the entire goal is simply to be where you are.
- Pay close attention to whatever is happening within and/or around you.
- Be present with what’s actually happening, rather than thinking about the past or planning for the future.
- Simply, accept what happens. Allow for a simple awareness and a gentle acceptance of the present moment, without judging it as “good” or “bad.”
While many people find themselves experiencing contentment and gratitude as they pay close attention to what’s all around them, it is important not to “try” to achieve these. While you’re practicing mindfulness, you aren’t actively trying to find things to be grateful for – you’re simply paying attention to whatever is there.
Mindfulness has been practiced for many years in a wide variety of spiritual traditions. In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn created a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. He wanted to introduce mindfulness to the Western world. Since that time, a huge number of studies have been done specifically on mindfulness with impressive benefits on health and aging risk factors.
For example, research has shown that people who undergo a mindfulness training program have a reduction in blood pressure of 6 mmHg. Since high blood pressure is one of the strongest predictors of shorter lifespan, cognitive decline and dementia[11,12] this is a good indication that mindfulness helps to protect your body and brain from aging.
How to do mindfulness meditation
The beautiful thing about mindfulness is that it can be done anywhere and at any time. For example, many people like to practice mindfulness while going on a walk. You can pay attention to the feeling of your feet touching the earth, the shifting relationship of your body to gravity, and the sounds, sights, and smells around you.
Another great opportunity for mindfulness is while you’re drinking a cup of your favorite hot beverage in the morning:
- Place your hands around the mug and feel the warmth.
- Take a moment to deeply smell your drink before you sip it.
- Notice the subtleties of the fragrances.
- Then, take a small sip, and pay close attention to how it feels and tastes in your mouth.
- Take your time drinking the whole cup, while paying attention to the sensations that you feel as you do so.
- Drinking your coffee or tea in this way can help you to start your day from a calm and clear place. This is a form of meditation.
Mindfulness can certainly also be used during a seated meditation practice:
- Sit or lie down comfortably, and close your eyes.
- Notice all of the sensations in your body.
- You may want to pay attention to the flow of your breath, as it moves in and out.
- Also notice your thoughts and emotions as they drift through your awareness. Many of us are too busy to pay attention to our own minds throughout most of the day, so taking a few minutes to check in with yourself and see what’s happening for you can be very powerful.
While practicing mindfulness, it’s common for the mind to wander off into thoughts of the past or the future. Simply notice when this happens, and then gently draw your awareness back to the present moment – perhaps to the sensations of your breath, or to the feeling of your body pressing into the ground or chair. Try not to judge yourself as “wrong” for allowing your mind to wander; simply invite your mind back into the present moment.
2: The anti-aging power of transcendental meditation
This technique uses a mantra, which is a repeated phrase. You mentally repeat the mantra throughout the practice. This gives the mind something to focus on, which can be very helpful for those who easily find their minds wandering when they try to meditate.
There have been quite a few studies looking at transcendental meditation specifically. One recent study used an assay to look at changes in gene expression in people who had practiced this technique regularly for many years. There was downregulation of 49 genes associated with inflammation, and since chronic inflammation is strongly associated with many (or even most) age-related diseases, this demonstrates an anti-aging effect of transcendental meditation[13,14].
The main issue with Transcendental meditation is that the technique is only officially taught by a specific organization, and you have to pay them to teach it to you. On a side note, this is probably why there are so many studies of this particular meditation technique. If you’d like to find a teacher of the technique in your area, you certainly can do that. But, in my view, meditation shouldn’t be restricted to those who are willing and able to pay for it. So, another option is to choose your own mantra.
How to practice transcendental meditation
Transcendental meditation teachers insist that your mantra needs to be chosen for you by one of their teachers, but if you want to give this technique a try for yourself, you could just choose your own.
The traditional mantras used in this technique are nonsense syllables based loosely on Sanskrit words. The idea is that using a mantra without a particular meaning prevents the mind from getting focused on the words themselves and thereby becoming distracted. You can look up mantras if you’d like, or just choose one or a few syllables that sound pleasing to you, like “sha-ma-la.” You can also use a word or a short phrase in English or any other language that you choose. Examples might include:
- “I am whole”
- “I am at peace”
- “I am love”
- “I am a river that steadily flows”
Just keep in mind that the effects may be somewhat different if you’re using words that have meaning to you; if you find this distracting while you’re meditating, you can always switch to nonsense syllables instead.
Once you’ve chosen a mantra, you can start the practice:
- Traditionally, it’s done in a comfortable seated position. Support your body as needed, so you won’t be distracted by pain or other discomfort.
- Close your eyes, and start mentally repeating your mantra to yourself. (There are also forms of meditation where the mantra is repeated out loud, but in this technique, you just say it mentally. If you want to say the mantra out loud, you can certainly try that as well, and keep doing it that way if it works better for you.)
- If you find your mind wandering, notice whatever it’s doing without judgment, and then gently draw your awareness back to the mantra.
- At some point, many people find that the mantra falls away, but isn’t replaced by thoughts; rather, you’re in a state of pure awareness. This is the “transcendental” part of the meditation. You can’t force this to happen, but if it does happen, then definitely go with it – don’t pull yourself out of it and back to the mantra. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine too. Just keep bringing your awareness back to your mantra.
Usually, it’s recommended to practice this technique for 15 to 20 minutes, twice a day. Unless you have absolutely nothing else to do that day, it’s a good idea to set some sort of a timer before you start, so that you don’t spend the whole meditation just wondering how long it’s been. When your timer rings, take a few breaths and feel your body as you gently shift your awareness back into everyday consciousness.
3: Compassion meditation and telomere length
Also known as loving-kindness meditation, this form of meditation focuses on enhancing feelings of compassion towards others. In one study, people who had never meditated before went through a six-week training program in this form of meditation. Their telomeres were measured before and after. Those who practiced loving-kindness meditation showed significantly less telomere shortening than a control group. And this was only a short-term study – the effects would be expected to compound over many years.
How to practice compassion meditation
For this form of meditation, choose any comfortable position:
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- When you feel ready, start by imagining someone that you love deeply. This may be a child, a partner, a best friend, even a pet.
- Feel your love envelop this person, and feel your desire that good things will happen to them.
- Mentally say to them, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be whole.”
- You then try expanding the practice to other people. You might next imagine someone you like, but don’t know as well – for example, maybe a coworker. Send them your love and your best wishes.
- Next, you could try a stranger. Some people find it’s easiest to pick a particular group of strangers; for example, you could hold children with cancer in your awareness, and think to them, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be whole.”
- You can then try expanding to larger and larger groups, perhaps even enveloping every living being on earth.
It’s also important to include yourself in your circle of compassion. You’re as worthy of your love and good wishes as anyone else is. For many of us, it may actually be harder to love ourselves than it is to love others.
Many of us struggle to feel worthy of love. Hold yourself in your own awareness; it may even help to imagine yourself sitting in front of you. Feel your love enveloping yourself, and mentally say to yourself, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be whole.”
Another step in this meditation may be to imagine someone that you’re having a conflict with. Imagine this person, recognizing that they’re a human being who struggles and suffers like all others. Send them your love and mentally repeat the mantra. You don’t need to fake it – if you really can’t bring yourself to genuinely send this person love, just go back to other stages of the practice. Eventually, after practicing compassion meditation for long enough, it’s very likely that your heart will soften and you’ll be able to genuinely offer good wishes even to someone that you’re in conflict with. In fact, this is one of the benefits of this form of meditation – it can help to improve relationships, by reminding us to stay compassionate towards others even during moments of tension or conflict.
Choose your own meditation for a long, healthy and happy life
While these three types of meditations have been validated in studies, there are hundreds of different meditation techniques. Different ones may work well for different people. When you’re first starting out, you may want to try out various techniques to see what feels right for you. The available research doesn’t clearly point to one technique as being more beneficial than the others, so you can feel free to explore and to choose for yourself. The most important thing is that you find a form of meditation that you enjoy enough to stay committed to it over many years.
It’s also important to give yourself time to learn the skill of meditation. Many people sit down for their first meditation session, and they feel restless and find their mind wandering the whole time. They may decide that meditation just isn’t for them, that they simply aren’t “good at it.”
Of course meditating can be challenging at first. Learning any new skill is challenging. You’re asking your brain to enter into a state of consciousness that it may not be accustomed to, and this won’t necessarily be easy. Just know that if you stick with it, it will get easier and easier over time. In fact, most regular meditators really look forward to their meditation practice. It’s a gift of a few minutes of peace and calm, and people almost always feel better after they’ve meditated.
This doesn’t mean that once you get used to it, meditation will never be challenging for you again. Even people who have been meditating regularly for decades sometimes have times when they sit down to practice and it feels difficult. They might be distracted by something that’s happening in their lives, or they might just be having some trouble focusing that day. It’s okay if it doesn’t feel effortless to meditate every time. The practice will still benefit you, and it’s worth staying committed to this path. The times when you struggle to get through a session will be far fewer than the times when you enjoy the practice.
In as little as 15 to 20 minutes a day, you can improve your ability to focus, reduce your risk of depression, and protect your brain and body from aging. Give yourself the gift of a meditation practice, and reap the benefits over the decades to come.