Live Longer With Mindfulness

July 21, 2014

Live Longer with Mindfulness 

 ReferenceNature, CNN 

 Let’s connect how long you live with some basic science and physiology, and then stress.   Every chromosome you have has a protective end on it called a telomere.  That is a repeating set of “nonsense DNA” that gets shortened each time the cell divides (It gives space for the duplication machinery of the chromosome to run off at the end).   That progressive shortening leads to what is called the “Hayflick Limit” which represents the number of times your cells can divide before they run out of that protective cap.  

With that limit in hand, we can predict that the maximum length that humans can live is about 120, which is what we see.  If you die sooner, it’s because your telomeres shortened up too fast.   An enzyme called telomerase can rebuild those telomeres and slow aging.  That discovery earned Blackburn a Nobel Prize in 2009. 

 What shortens telomeres?  Want to keep yours longer?  That’s the BIG question.  Turns out stress is a biggie.  Lots of research is beginning to support it.  Epel looked at 58 highly frazzled women and compared them to 58 carefully matched controls in a widely quoted study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.  The highly stressed women had much shorter telomeres, and that translated into a decade less life expectancy. 

  Another study showed that telomere shortening over a couple of years predicts cardiovascular mortality over the subsequent decade. So far so good.   Now, can you strengthen your telomerase and lengthen your telomeres?  Yup!  Stress reduction does that.  For example, if you take 30 volunteers and send them off for a 3 month retreat in Colorado where they are taught meditation, their telomeres come back longer than controls.  Not bad!   

Or take 12 caregivers for demented patients (a very high-stress job), and teach them Kirtan Kriya meditaion, and then measure their telomerase activity.  The meditators had a 40% improvement in telomerase activity compared to 3% of those who “just relaxed”. Just relaxing seems logical but maybe isn’t enough.  Learning to be mindful requires practice.  It’s not just sitting still.  It is a rigorous exercise of the mind.   Rigorously practicing letting your busy, worried, stressed mind learn to be present is hard work. 

 WWW.  What will work for me.  I’m such a believer in this.  My scientific side keeps wanting to be skeptical because it’s hard to measure with visible solid proof.  From what I’ve seen, however, it’s real.  I have seen too many folks who have taken on the effort of learning, and they have benefited.  I bet their telomeres are longer.  At last we have a way of measuring. To quote from the Buddha: "The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly." 

 Pop Quiz:

  1. Telomeres are empty DNA at the end of a chromosome that gives space for the machinery of chromosome duplication to finish copying chromosomes without damaging the genes.  T or F                     Answer:  True.  You must have read the Wikipedia reference
  1. Because they get progressively shortened with each cell duplication, there is a limit to the number of times they can duplicate before telomeres are used up and the native DNA is damaged.  T or F                       Answer:  Bingo
  1. You shorten your telomeres with stress.  T or F                   Answer:   That’s the gist of recent research.
  1. You prevent that shortening with meditation techniques that reduce stress and focus on the present.   T or F                        Answer:   True
  1. Relaxing is just as good as meditation.  T or F                    Answer:  False. As best we can tell, it takes focus and attention to the process of relaxing in a certain way we call mindfulness. Read All Dr Whitcomb’s Posts at Dr Whitcomb Practices Antiaging Medicine in Brookfield, WI You can learn more about him at