Background: Telomerase activity is a predictor of long-term cellular viability, which decreases with chronic psychological distress (Epel et al., 2004). Buddhist traditions claim that meditation decreases psychological distress and promotes well-being (e.g., Dalai Lama and Cutler, 2009). Therefore, we investigated the effects of a 3-month meditation retreat on telomerase activity and two major contributors to the experience of stress: Perceived Control (associated with decreased stress) and Neuroticism (associated with increased subjective distress). We used mediation models to test whether changes in Perceived Control and Neuroticism explained meditation retreat effects on telomerase activity. In addition, we investigated whether two qualities developed by meditative practice, increased Mindfulness and Purpose in Life, accounted for retreat-related changes in the two stress-related variables and in telomerase activity.
Methods: Retreat participants (n=30) meditated for ∼6 h daily for 3 months and were compared with a wait-list control group (n=30) matched for age, sex, body mass index, and prior meditation experience. Retreat participants received instruction in concentrative meditation techniques and complementary practices used to cultivate benevolent states of mind (Wallace, 2006). Psychological measures were assessed pre- and post-retreat. Peripheral blood mononuclear cell samples were collected post-retreat for telomerase activity. Because there were clear, a priori hypotheses, 1-tailed significance criteria were used throughout.
Results: Telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants than in controls at the end of the retreat (p<0.05). Increases in Perceived Control, decreases in Neuroticism, and increases in both Mindfulness and Purpose in Life were greater in the retreat group (p<0.01). Mediation analyses indicated that the effect of the retreat on telomerase was mediated by increased Perceived Control and decreased Neuroticism. In turn, changes in Perceived Control and Neuroticism were both partially mediated by increased Mindfulness and Purpose in Life. Additionally, increases in Purpose in Life directly mediated the telomerase group difference, whereas increases in Mindfulness did not.
Conclusions: This is the first study to link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity. Although we did not measure baseline telomerase activity, the data suggest that increases in perceived control and decreases in negative affectivity contributed to an increase in telomerase activity, with implications for telomere length and immune cell longevity. Further, Purpose in Life is influenced by meditative practice and directly affects both perceived control and negative emotionality, affecting telomerase activity directly as well as indirectly.
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