Does meditation turn back your biological clock? A number of studies suggest the answer is yes. For instance, a study published this year found that people who meditated daily for at least four years had longer elomeres—the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes—than people who do not meditate. Short telomeres are believed to be markers of accelerated aging, according to the study’s lead author, Elizabeth A. Hoge, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Scientists have also shown that meditation may reverse the effects of aging on the brain. As we grow older, the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain associated with attention and planning—gets thinner. In 2005, Sara Lazar, PhD, also with Harvard’s psychiatry department, found that meditators had thicker prefrontal cortexes than did nonmeditators.
Similarly, in 2010, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that, compared with nonmedi-tators, meditators have significantly greater blood flow in their brains—a sign of robust brain activity. The same group also found that training people who have signs of memory decline to meditate increased theircerebral blood flow and memory. “We believe that doing meditation improves your memory and attention in the long run,” says Andrew Newberg, MD, the senior author of both studies and now director of research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Several different types of meditation produce anti-aging benefits. Participants in Hoge’s study did “loving kindness” meditation. This sometimes involves “repeating a series of phrases that you direct toward another person, like ‘May you be well,’ ‘May you be healthy,’ ‘May you be at ease,’ ” Hoge explains. The University of Pennsylvania group engaged in Kirtan Kriya, a singing meditation.
Hoge says meditation may keep you young because it decreases the body’s production of stress hormones, which have negative effects, such as tissue damage. In particular, loving-kindness meditation may be valuable because it guides practitioners to think of other people—a social focus that may increase the activity of oxytocin in the brain, a hormone whose levels can increase when you hug someone. Boosts in oxytocin have been linked to health benefits such as lower blood pressure and faster wound healing.
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