by Sydney Bright and Christopher Cirino
What if as time passes, our bodies did not age? Does growing older always have to lead to a sharp decline in physical health? Is it possible to live long with a vibrant, healthy body? Modern science is beginning to challenge our preconceived notions of aging, and the above questions are starting to seem more possible than ever before. Ancient practices like meditation are gaining recognition.
Emerging research on longevity places practices like meditation at the forefront. In the west, meditation has become a trendy pathway for relaxation and not necessarily for any relevance to health. However, recent studies reveal a multitude of health benefits. The scientific background of meditation has begun to shed light on some things we all should take seriously regarding the state of our mental health, thoughts, behaviors, and bodies.
An interesting question to ask in this age of ever-evolving paradigms and research is how these two subjects, aging and meditation, relate to one another. Can meditation impart any benefit on aging? Can it reverse our biological clock? While the research is very fresh, with many questions yet to answer, the preliminary results are fascinating.
Table of Contents
What is the Biological Clock?
The science of aging emerged over the last decade and is in great flux. A PubMed search of the keyword “longevity” shows that half of all articles ever written on the topic occurred in the last decade. Researchers regard “aging” differently now than even recently. Aging was considered a natural process of time and a consequence of the law of entropy. Like the law that explains the universe, scientists reasoned our bodies follow a similar process, represented by the gradual aggregation of reactive oxidative species (ROS) that cause stress and lead to organ and tissue dysfunction. Over time, the dysfunctions accumulate until we die. Though some still support this argument, another theory has largely displaced it. This new theory describes a biological clock controlled by our genes and epigenetic code.
According to researchers, there are three major biological clocks: telomeres, the thymus, and the epigenome (Mitteldorf, 2016). The idea of telomeres as a biological clock is not a novel one. Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes that shorten as the cell replicates, and once fully depleted, it results in programmed cell death. It is not hard to draw parallels between this and the body’s slow decay over time. Meanwhile, a telomerase enzyme can oppose these effects and extend these ends. The interplay between shortening and lengthening supports that the biological clock is not linear.
The thymus gland influences our immune system’s T-cells and trains them to distinguish between foreign invaders and our cells (Mitteldorf, 2016). When this process fails, dysfunctions like autoimmune disease can occur. Likewise, the thymus size declines with age, a process known as involution, marking a decline in T-cell production and increased susceptibility to infections and chronic diseases. It also plays a role in the biological clock (Mitteldorf, 2016). One study supported this, showing a regression in epigenetic age markers after stimulating thymus tissue regeneration with growth hormone, DHEA, and Metformin (Fahey, 2019.)
Nonetheless, the thymus is not the primary driver for the body’s aging. The epigenome has attracted the most attention recently. Many researchers now assert that our epigenome holds the key to understanding how our bodies age and how we can reverse it. They estimate that 20% of longevity is related to genetics and 80% epigenetics.
How do Scientists Explain Aging?
One of the dominant theories involving aging and epigenetics is the information theory of aging. This theory states that the loss of youthful epigenetic expression leads to cellular dysfunction and senescence (Lu et al., 2020). Imagine the epigenome as a stone tablet, full of the engravings of every instruction needed to allow the body to be healthy and young. Over time, dust and debris settle onto this tablet, making it more and more challenging to read. As this dust accumulates, instructions become faulty, contributing to errors in how cells read DNA. The consequences are the changes seen with aging.
Though this may seem like it resonates with the concept of aging as entropy, some contend that adaptations generated through natural selection programs these changes within our genome (Mitteldorf, 2016). Unlike entropy and time, the loss of youthful information carries some reversibility. A study involving old mice showed that genes retain a record of youthful expression, and the gene repression had some reversibility (Lu et al., 2020). In other words, it is possible to dust off the tablet to make everything visible as it was before. What’s more is that the dust accumulation relates to environmental and behavioral factor including chronic stress, substance use, sleep deprivation, and other choices that are in our hands.
Given that epigenetic expression related to aging is changeable, much research aims to find therapeutic means to promote longevity. A popular target is the SIRT1 (sirtuins) protein that regulates epigenetics as histone deacetylase (HDAC) (Imai, 2009; Sawarkar & Shekhar, 2018). Sirtuin activation requires nicotine adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). These two molecules are crucial for vascular remodeling. When researchers raised NAD+ levels during exercise, mice showed a reversal of signs of vascular aging (Das et al., 2018).
Lastly, the decreased activation of HDACs, in general, is also known to lead to neurodegenerative diseases (Sleiman et al., 2009). The evidence speaks to the impact that sirtuins and other proteins that regulate epigenetic expression may have on our health. If they are genuinely reversible, then this would be a profound discovery.
Most aging researchers focus on pharmaceutical means to alter the epigenetic expression to favor a more youthful phenotype. However, what if there were lifestyle habits and practices we could perform that would help reverse our epigenome’s aging without the need for pharmaceuticals? Meditation may be such a method.
What is Meditation?
A general description of meditation is required to properly discuss the relationship between the physiology of aging and meditation. Meditation is a term for various forms of practice primarily derived from ancient Indian and Chinese traditions. However, ancient western societies practiced forms of meditation as well.
In the literature, meditation falls into distinct practices, the most common being mindfulness meditation. Practitioners of this form orient their attention towards the direct experience of the present while adopting an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance (S. R. Bishop et al., 2004). The result is an altered state of mind and a reduction of mental ruminations. These relate to thoughts that repeatedly focus on a common theme despite no immediate environmental need (Watkins, 2008). In yogic philosophy, this is akin to “monkey mind,” describing a mind living in either the past or present, bouncing from one to another like a monkey swinging branch to branch.
The mind is encouraged to be still and present instead. The consequences of a reorientation of mental focus are seemingly vast from a health perspective, yet the mechanism they occur is still largely unclear (Heckenberg et al., 2018; Luberto et al., 2018; Zou et al., 2018).
One change that does seem clear, though, and would carry many consequences across the body is that mindfulness meditation blunts the autonomic nervous system (ANS) response and promotes parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) dominance via activation of the vagus nerve (Breit et al., 2018; Heckenberg et al., 2018). Though this is an oversimplification of meditation and its benefits, it is a good starting point to delve into the crucial findings of longevity. Additionally, it highlights how a practice that involves a change in mental reorientation could influence the rest of the body.
What is the Science on Meditation and Aging?
To what extent can meditation influence our epigenetic clock? The answer to this is far from clarified. Nevertheless, some exciting studies are worth mentioning. A study observed epigenetic changes in long-term meditators, including as they relate to the brain, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (García-Campayo et al., 2018). Another study found similar changes in genes concerning PTSD in meditators (J. R. Bishop et al., 2018). However, not all epigenetic expression relates to aging physiology. Even though meditation influences the epigenome, it may not guarantee that there will be an effect to make someone live longer.
We first needed to identify the contributing genes to the epigenetic clock to test whether meditation can influence it. In 2013, Steve Horvath invented an epigenetic clock test (Horvath, 2013), which measures DNA methylation on particular sites (CpG) that accumulate in aging. Though an imperfect surrogate marker, it provides a powerful tool to determine the effect of various practices on epigenetics. Using the Horvath clock test, regular meditators showed fewer epigenetic changes, which correlated with the number of years of practice (Chaix et al., 2017).
Some studies on meditation found benefits in other markers. A program combining meditation, yoga, and pranayama increased sirtuin levels in those practicing (Tolahunase et al., 2017). It is extraordinary that a chemical targeted pharmacologically as an anti-aging drug can be increased naturally through yoga and meditation.
Conclusions: Meditations tends the Garden
The research involving aging is complex and still in its infancy. It’s easy to become overly excited about these revelations. Do the findings on the malleability of epigenetics imply pharmaceuticals might be able to extend our lives past what we would consider possible? Does this mean that someone suffering from age-related issues could restore their body to a more youthful state?
Perhaps the meditation findings suggest that we can learn to live healthy lifestyles that slow the inevitability of aging to a point where we have longer health spans over long lives void of age-related troubles. I certainly do not have an answer to these questions. However, my intuition tells me that drugs and pharmaceuticals may promise anti-aging effects as the science develops. Indeed, they will be a great benefit to us.
Nevertheless, lifestyle practices and, by what studies support, meditation are essential to anti-aging and bring many additional benefits. Furthermore, someone requires no equipment or gym to participate in meditation.
The research shows us that our bodies are like a garden: their ecosystem is delicate, and every system influences the other. However, when adequately maintained, it grows with vigor and beauty. As long as peace flourishes within, its vessel perseveres through the eroding tides of aging.
May we all maintain such beauty and peace within our garden. Namaste.
Further YHF articles: Here is a deeper dive on the neuroscience of mindfulness. Check out the keyword search option on the front page of the website for more articles.
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