Mindfulness – The Fountain of Youth?

fountain of youth

When I attended my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997, I was amazed by how young he was.  He was in his early seventies but looked fifty years old.  His mind was razor sharp and his memory incredible.  He could recite and write Chinese text from ancient Buddhist sutras. Toward the end of the retreat, I couldn’t help but conclude that the secret to maintaining youthfulness is mindful living - being able to fully immerse oneself in the present moment! After all, Thay practices mindfulness as a way of life 24/7 through mindful breathing, mindful eating and mindful walking. 

But how does mindfulness translate - scientifically - into the Fountain of Youth?

Results of a UCSF study released last week tie mindfulness to healthy aging. The study measured participants’ telomeres. Cellular markers of age, these DNA end-caps shorten as we grow older, offering less and less protection for our chromosomes. As telomeres fade, chromosomes can fuse with one-another or unravel.  Consequently, short telomeres can predict early mortality.

Of the 239 healthy, middle-aged women in Dr. Elissa Epel’s study, those who reported being present in the moment had longer telomeres than those who experienced frequent mind-wandering. 

Telomeres not only shorten with age, but also with physical and psychological stress. So it follows that meditation could potentially rejuvenate these chromosome guards. A steady stream of studies have revealed positive cognitive reactions to meditation, including decreased gray matter in regions associated with anxiety and stress.

Though further research is necessary to determine if there is a causal relationship between mindfulness and telomere length, the ever-expanding bank of data supporting meditation is clear: there is benefit here. 

Meditation can take the form of listening to music, standing in line or eating chocolate. No need to up-end your life-style. Simply devote ten minutes a day to your stress-antidote of choice and let me know how it goes. 

Thank you to Neil's Photography for the use of this image.