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Even identical twins who are born with the same genome show variations in their health span during the aging process. In addition to our genetic information, many environmental and lifestyle-related factors can influence the aging rate of cells and tissues.
One of the most accurate predictors of the rate of biological aging is the "epigenetic clock" formed by chemical tags (methyl groups) that are added to the DNA molecules. When the ticking of this clock is too fast, the risks of chronic diseases increase.
A new study published in the scientific journal Psychoneuroendocrinology provides new clues to better understand how meditation-based stress reduction practices may promote healthier aging.
Among the factors known to accelerate the epigenetic clock is cumulative lifetime stress, which highlights the clinical interest of finding methods to help improve stress coping.
Meditation – a practice that cultivates awareness of the present moment – has increasingly become a focus of scientific interest as an effective way to ease emotional stress.
"Although this is a pilot study that requires further validation, we hypothesize from these findings that regular meditation practice may represent a useful preventive strategy for age-related chronic diseases," says Raphäelle Chaix, from CNRS-MNHN in Paris who co-led the study with Perla Kaliman, an associated researcher at UC-Davis and collaborator at the Center for Healthy Minds.
The work is the first to suggest that the long-term practice of meditation may slow down the epigenetic clock in immune cells.
"These findings are exciting because they are the first to show that long-term meditation practice can induce a change in the regulation of our genes that influence the biological mechanisms of aging."
Kaliman says finding effective lifestyle-based strategies to tackle the health-related challenges of the aging population is a priority area today.
In collaboration with Center Founder and Director Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz from the Centre de Recherche en Neurosciences de Lyon, the team analyzed the epigenetic clocks of subjects with a background of 5 to 30 years of meditation practice and compared them with meditation naïve controls.
The study reports two striking observations. First, the trajectory of epigenetic aging differed between controls and meditators: controls aged 52 and over showed a significant acceleration of their epigenetic clock when compared with younger controls while meditators were protected from this epigenetic aging effect.
The researchers also found that the ticking of the epigenetic clock was slower as the number of years of meditation experience increased, suggesting that the integration of meditation practice into daily routine may have anti-aging effects in the long run.
“These findings are exciting because they are the first to show that long-term meditation practice can induce a change in the regulation of our genes that influence the biological mechanisms of aging," says Davidson. "We think it’s going to launch a whole new domain of investigation concerning the impact of mental training on the mechanisms of biological aging."