Practicing loving-kindness may protect your genes and slow down the aging process, a new study finds.
Chronic stress and aging take their toll on the mind and body, including our genes. A number of studies show that for some, meditation decreases stress, and slows down the rate at which cells age. Now, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that practicing loving-kindness may be the key.
Cellular aging is often determined by telomere length. Telomeres, which are located at the end of chromosomes, are like the plastic tips of shoelaces that protect genes from deteriorating too rapidly over time. Age and chronic stress cause telomeres to wear down. Short telomeres have been linked to numerous illnesses including cancer and heart disease. But there is good news. Meditation may help to slow down this process of telomere decline.
Looking at the Health Effects of Different Forms of Meditation
In the study, researchers wanted to know which forms of meditation were most effective for protecting telomeres. They assigned 176 adults between the ages of 35 and 64 years with no prior meditation experience to either a mindfulness meditation group, a loving-kindness meditation group, or a waitlist control group.
People in the mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation groups attended 6, hour-long group meditation classes once per week. They were also given 20-minute audio-recorded practices to use each day at home.
Loving-kindness meditation focused on cultivating warm, friendly feelings toward oneself, a loved one, an acquaintance, a challenging person, and then all beings.
Mindfulness meditation instruction emphasized paying attention to the breath, thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations with an open and non-judgment attitude. Meditators were taught to observe their experience, with the goal of attaining more objectivity and mental clarity.
Loving-kindness meditation focused on cultivating warm, friendly feelings toward oneself, a loved one, an acquaintance, a challenging person, and then all beings. Instruction emphasized a shift toward kindness and social connection.
Two weeks before the training and 3 weeks after, participants provided blood samples. Telomere length was determined by looking at the chromosomes in white blood cells. Adults in each group also filled out reports of their mood and their meditation practice.
Loving-Kindness May Protect Your Genes, Slowing Down Aging
After 6 weeks, the average telomere length decreased in all 3 groups by approximately 115 base pairs. This rate is far beyond the typical rate of approximately 24.7-45.5 base pairs per year. The most significant declines in telomere length occurred in the control group, and slightly less so among mindfulness meditators, with the least decline occurring in the loving-kindness group. There were no links between the decline in telomere length and self-reported mood or practice frequency or duration.
The fact that the magnitude of telomere shortening in all 3 groups greatly exceeded what is typically seen raises the possibility that some factor related to how the blood samples were collected or treated may be driving the differences observed. What’s more, the lack of a connection between how often or how long participants practiced, how they felt, and changes in their DNA make it hard to determine what about loving-kindness meditation may have been related to these results.
Previous studies suggest that a combination of mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation may slow down the breakdown of telomerase that naturally occurs with stress and aging. More research will be needed to tease out why and how this occurs.