Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Meet a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so and consider whether it might work for you.
Scientist Elizabeth Blackburn
Meditation may seem like a world away from biomedical research, with its close focus on molecular processes and repeatable results. Yet at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist is engaged in studies hinting that meditation could slow ageing and lengthen life.
Elizabeth Blackburn has always been fascinated by how life works. She was drawn to biochemistry, she says, because it offered a precise understanding of life “in the form of deep knowledge of the smallest possible subunit of a process”.
Working with biologist Joe Gall at Yale in the 1970s, Blackburn discovered a protective cap on the chromosomes of a single-celled freshwater creature. The caps, dubbed telomeres, were also found on human chromosomes. They shield our chromosomes when our cells divide, but they wear down each time.
In the 1980s, working with graduate student Carol Greider at the University of California, Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds our telomeres. Even with this enzyme, our telomeres dwindle over time. When they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide—a key process in ageing. This work won Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
In 2000, Blackburn was visited by Elissa Epel, a postdoctoral student from UCSF’s psychiatry department who had a radical proposal.
“I was interested in the idea that if we look deep within cells we might be able to measure the wear and tear of stress,” says Epel, now director of the Ageing, Metabolism and Emotion Centre at UCSF. After reading about Blackburn’s work, she wondered if telomeres might fit the bill.
Epel asked Blackburn for help with a study of mothers caring for chronically ill children. Epel’s plan was to ask the women how stressed they felt, then look for a relationship between their state of mind and their telomeres. Collaborators at the University of Utah would measure telomere length, while Blackburn’s team would in turn measure telomerase levels.
Until this point, Blackburn’s research had involved precisely controlled lab experiments. Epel’s work, however, focused on real lives. “It was another world as far as I was concerned,” says Blackburn.
At first, she doubted it would be possible to see any meaningful connection between stress and telomeres. Genes were seen as the determining factor of telomere length, and the idea that it would be possible to measure psychological impact was controversial. As a mother, however, Blackburn was drawn to studying these women. “You can’t help but empathise,” she says.
Initally they collected blood samples from 58 women divided into two groups—stressed mothers and a control group. The results were undeniable. The more stressed the mothers were, the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase.
The most frazzled women had telomeres that resulted in an extra decade of ageing compared to the least stressed, while their telomerase levels were halved. It was the first indication that feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health—it ages us.
When the paper waspublished in December 2004, it sparked widespread press coverage. Robert Sapolsky, a stress researcher at Stanford University, described the collaboration as “a leap across a vast interdisciplinary canyon”.
Many telomere researchers were wary at first. “This was a risky idea back then, and in some eyes unlikely,” explains Epel. “Everyone is born with very different telomere lengths and to think that we can measure something psychological or behavioural, not genetic, and have that predict the length of our telomeres? This is really not where this field was ten years ago.”
The paper triggered an explosion of further research. Perceived stress has since been linked to shorter telomeres in healthy women as well as in Alzheimer’s caregivers, victims of domestic abuse and early–life trauma, as well as people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
“There’s no question that environment has some consequence on telomere length,” says Mary Armanios, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Laboratory studies show that cortisol (the stress hormone) reduces the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation—the physiological fallout of psychological stress—appear to erode telomeres directly. Many age-related health conditions, such as osteoarthritis, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and strokes, have all been linked to short telomeres.
Whether telomeres are simply a harmless marker of age-related damage (much like grey hair) or themselves play a role in age-related health problems, is now the big question for researchers. People with genetic mutations affecting the enzyme telomerase, who have much shorter telomeres than normal, suffer from accelerated-ageing syndromes and their organs progressively fail. But Armanios questions whether the reductions in telomere length caused by stress are relevant for health, especially as telomere lengths are so variable in the first place.
Blackburn, however, says she’s increasingly convinced that the effects of stress do matter. Several studies have shown that telomeres predict our future health. One showed that elderly men whose telomeres shortened over two-and-a-half years were three times as likely to die from cardiovascular disease in the subsequent nine years as those whose telomeres stayed the same length or got longer.
Blackburn is collaborating with healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente to measure the telomeres of 100,000 people. The hope is that combining telomere length with data from the volunteers’ genomes and medical records will reveal additional links between telomere length and disease, as well as more genetic mutations that affect telomere length.
Blackburn says the data shows that as the population ages, average telomere length goes down, but at age 75–80, the curve swings back up as people with shorter telomeres die off—proof that those with longer telomeres actually do live longer.
"Conditions from diabetes to obesity and strokes have all been linked to telomeres."
"10 years ago, if you’d told me that I’d be seriously thinking about meditation, I’d have said one of us is loco,” Blackburn told The New York Times in 2007. Yet that is where her work has brought her. Since her initial study with Epel, the pair have collaborated with teams around the world, many focusing on ways to protect telomeres from stress. Trials suggest that exercise, healthy eating and emotional support all help, but meditation is the most effective.
In one project, Blackburn and her colleagues sent participants to meditate at the Shambhala mountain retreat in Colorado. Those who completed a three-month course had 30 per cent higher levels of telomerase than a similar group on a waiting list.
A pilot study of dementia caregivers found that those who tried a chanting meditation 12 minutes a day for eight weeks, had significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group who listened to simple relaxing music.
Theories differ as to why meditation might boost telomeres and telomerase, but the most likely reason is that it reduces stress. The practice involves slow, regular breathing, which relaxes us physically by calming the fight-or-flight response. It probably has a psychological stress-busting effect too, as we learn to appreciate the present instead of worrying about the past or the future.
In general, Blackburn’s strictly methodical approach has earned her admiration, even with those concerned about the health claims made by alternative medicine.
Others aren’t quite so impressed. Surgical oncologist David Gorski, an alternative-medicine critic, is concerned that the preliminary results of these studies may have been oversold. “Nobel Prize winners aren’t infallible,” he says.
Blackburn attributes this skepticism to unfamiliarity with meditation. “We’re always trying to say, ‘Look, it’s a preliminary—a pilot.’ But people see headlines and panic.”
Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist who studies how meditation changes brain structure, adds, “When meditation first came to the West in the 1960s it was tied to the drug and hippie culture. People think it’s just a bunch of crystals.”
But the tide is finally turning. Now some researchers are developing non-religious practices such as mindfulness-based stress relief and cognitive therapy. They’ve reported a wide range of benefits such as lowering high blood pressure and even relieving depression.
Traditions from Buddhism to Taoism believe that presence of mind promotes health and longevity; Blackburn and her colleagues now suggest that the ancient wisdom might be right. This is supported by one study of 239 healthy women, which found that those whose minds wandered less had significantly longer telomeres than those whose thoughts ran wild.
Blackburn’s view is that meditation is a fair topic to study, as long as scientifically robust methods are used. She even tried it out herself and has found that short bursts effectively help her to sharpen her mind and even avoid distraction.
"Ten years ago, if you'd told me I'd be thinking about meditation, I'd have said one of us was loco."
One day, information from telomeres may help doctors decide when to prescribe particular drugs. For example, telomerase activity predicts who’ll respond well to treatment for major depression, while telomere length influences the effects of statins.
Blackburn is more interested in how telomeres might encourage people to change their lifestyle to reduce their risk of disease.
Conventional medical tests tell us about our risk of certain conditions—high cholesterol warns of heart disease, for example, while high blood sugar predicts diabetes. Telomere length, by contrast, gives an overall reading of our biological age.
Blackburn believes that putting a concrete number on our health in this way could provide an incentive to take action and change both our behaviour and attitudes.
Ultimately, she and Epel want governments to start paying attention to telomeres. A growing body of work shows that the stress from social adversity is a major force eroding these protective caps.
People who didn’t finish secondary school or are in abusive relationships have shorter telomeres, while studies have also shown links to low socio-economic status, shift work, rough neighbourhoods and environmental pollution. Children are particularly at risk: being abused or experiencing adversity early on leaves people with shorter telomeres for the rest of their lives. “It’s now a consistent story that the ageing machinery is shaped at the earliest stages of life,” Epel insists.
“If we ignore that and we just keep trying to put plasters on later, we’re never going to get at prevention and we’re only going to fail at cure."
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