Monday, April 25, 2011

How meditation might ward off the effects of ageing

... Visitors here to the Shambhala Mountain Centre meditate in silence for up to 10 hours every day, emulating the lifestyle that monks have chosen for centuries in mountain refuges from India to Japan. But is it doing them any good? For two three-month retreats held in 2007, this haven for the eastern spiritual tradition opened its doors to western science. As attendees pondered the "four immeasurables" of love, compassion, joy and equanimity, a laboratory squeezed into the basement bristled with scientific equipment from brain and heart monitors to video cameras and centrifuges. The aim: to find out exactly what happens to people who meditate.

After several years of number-crunching, data from the so-called Shamatha project is finally starting to be published. So far the research has shown some not hugely surprising psychological and cognitive changes – improvements in perception and wellbeing, for example. But one result in particular has potentially stunning implications: that by protecting caps called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation might help to delay the process of ageing. ...

Scientists from a range of fields are starting to compile evidence that rather than simply being a transient mental or spiritual experience, meditation may have long-term implications for physical health.

There are many kinds of meditation, including transcendental meditation, in which you focus on a repetitive mantra, and compassion meditation, which involves extending feelings of love and kindness to fellow living beings. One of the most studied practices is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or being aware of your own thoughts and surroundings. Buddhists believe it alleviates suffering by making you less caught up in everyday stresses – helping you to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.

"You pay attention to your own breath," explains Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation at Massachusetts general hospital in Boston. "If your mind wanders, you don't get discouraged, you notice the thought and think, 'OK'."

Small trials have suggested that such meditation creates more than spiritual calm. Reported physical effects include lowering blood pressure, helping psoriasis to heal, and boosting the immune response in vaccine recipients and cancer patients. In a pilot study in 2008, Willem Kuyken, head of the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, showed that mindfulness meditation was more effective than drug treatment in preventing relapse in patients with recurrent depression. And in 2009, David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that it slowed disease progression in patients with HIV.

Most of these trials have involved short courses of meditation aimed at treating specific conditions. The Shamatha project, by contrast, is an attempt to see what a longer, more intensive course of meditation might do for healthy people. The project was co-ordinated by neuroscientist Clifford Saron of the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. His team advertised in Buddhist publications for people willing to spend three months in an intensive meditation retreat, and chose 60 participants. Half of them attended in the spring of 2007, while the other half acted as a control group before heading off for their own retreat in the autumn. ...

They found that at the end of the retreat, meditators had significantly higher telomerase activity than the control group, suggesting that their telomeres were better protected.  The researchers are cautious, but say that in theory this might slow or even reverse cellular ageing. "If the increase in telomerase is sustained long enough," says Epel, "it's logical to infer that this group would develop more stable and possibly longer telomeres over time." ...

via How meditation might ward off the effects of ageing | Life and style | The Observer.


Patrick said...

One thing all these yogis and monks and believers never mention is that the mystique around all this quickly vanishes when you replace the word "meditate" with "relax."
I do yoga three times a week and it never ceases to amaze me that the classes are full of
people who fled western religions just so that they could now dogmatically believe in some more irrational claptrap. Prayer, absolution, healing, heavan. Energy, chakras, chanting, gaia---same shit, different fashion.
Though the plus of the latter BS, I have to say, is women in yoga pants.

Nathaniel said...

So are you saying you agree with meditation or not? Relaxing is definitely nowhere near the same thing as meditation.

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