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Researchers Link Mindfulness to Healthier Cells and Longer Telomeres and Suggest Attention May Increase Longevity

posted 10:44 PM EST, Tue November 20, 2012

Not only does mindfulness improve mental health, researchers at UCSF say it may also improve cellular health by protecting chromosomes from damage and decay… So at the end of the day – paying more attention might lengthen your lifespan.

Loads of research links mindfulness to decreased depression and increased happiness, but could the simple act of paying attention to the moment protect cells from degradation?

Could paying attention to life actually lengthen your life?

Well, according to a team of Nobel Prize winning scientists who study telomeres – mindfulness and longevity may well go hand in hand.

Telomeres are caps that protect the ends of chromosomes from damage. Telomere length decreases with age, and factors like physical or mental stress can accelerate this shortening.

And unfortunately, shortened telomeres are associated with an increased risk of dying.

Would regular mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment - have any influence on telomere length?

The Study

  • Researchers recruited 239 women between the ages of 50 and 65 and asked each subject to rate how much their mind wandered during everyday tasks and how well and how often they stayed focused and ‘in the moment’ with everyday tasks.
  • The subjects were then tested for psychological stress and measures of well-being
  • The researchers then measured each subject’s telomere lengths.

The Results

Even after controlling for confounding factors like stress, women who reported more present moment awareness had longer telomeres than women who reported less mindfulness during everyday tasks.

The Commentary

Lead researcher Elissa Epel, PhD, discussed the significance of the results, writing, "Our attentional state—where our thoughts rest at any moment – turns out to be a fascinating window into our well-being. It may be affected by our emotional state as well as shape our emotional state…This study was a first step and suggests it's worth delving into understanding the link between mind wandering and cell health to get a better understanding of whether there is causality and reversibility. For example, does reducing mind wandering promote better cell health? Or are these relationships just reflective of some underlying long-standing characteristics of a person?"

Previous research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation is associated with an increase in levels of the enzyme that protects telomeres, called telomerase.

Read the full research findings in the Nov 15th edition of Clinical Psychological Science

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Story Highlights
  • Mindfulness Affects Cell Health: People who spend more time in the present moment have longer telomeres. Telomeres protect chromosomes from damage.
  • Telomere Length Associated with Lifespan: Telomeres shorten as we age.
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