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Review
. 2009 Aug;1172:34-53.
doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x.

Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres

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Free PMC article
Review

Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres

Elissa Epel et al. Ann N Y Acad Sci. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

Understanding the malleable determinants of cellular aging is critical to understanding human longevity. Telomeres may provide a pathway for exploring this question. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. The length of telomeres offers insight into mitotic cell and possibly organismal longevity. Telomere length has now been linked to chronic stress exposure and depression. This raises the question of mechanism: How might cellular aging be modulated by psychological functioning? We consider two psychological processes or states that are in opposition to one another-threat cognition and mindfulness-and their effects on cellular aging. Psychological stress cognitions, particularly appraisals of threat and ruminative thoughts, can lead to prolonged states of reactivity. In contrast, mindfulness meditation techniques appear to shift cognitive appraisals from threat to challenge, decrease ruminative thought, and reduce stress arousal. Mindfulness may also directly increase positive arousal states. We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance. Aspects of this model are currently being tested in ongoing trials of mindfulness meditation.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1. Model of Mindfulness Meditation Effects on Telomere Length through Positive and Stressful Cognitive States
This speculative model has support for some relationships, as reviewed throughout this paper, but the full model remains to be tested. The dotted arrows represent inverse relationships. Positive cognitions are linked to affective balance (higher positive affect and lower negative affect) whereas stress cognitions are linked to greater negative affect. Positive cognitions and emotions may promote greater vagal tone, androgens, and growth hormone (GH) axis activity, whereas stress cognitions and negative affect lead to high cortisol, insulin, and oxidative stress. Mindfulness may promote positive arousal directly and/or through positive cognitions, and may inhibit negative arousal directly and/or through dampening stress cognitions. Lastly, the positive pathway and the negative stress pathway tend to counter-regulate each other (arrows not shown), and have opposite effects on telomere maintenance. Specifically, we pose that positive arousal promotes and stress arousal prevents telomere maintenance.

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