TELOMERES is the scientific name for a part of the complex molecular structure that make up our chromosomes. We heard a lot about them at the presentation we organized with Dr Ian Gawler, in Coffs Harbour last month.
Dr Gawler is known as an author on meditation, health and cancer recovery, and as a cancer survivor who experienced a remarkable, extraordinary recovery from so-called “terminal” metastatic bone cancer 35 years ago. Telomeres had not been found or named then. But Ian Gawler and a number of other Mind / Body medicine practitioners and authors are making a big noise about them now. If you are interested in this topic a lengthy, well-written piece appeared on the CNN news site on July 10th, titled “Can meditation really slow aging?”
The story traces the discovery of telomeres, on the chromosomes in the nucleus of cells, in the 1970s by scientists including Australia’s Nobel Prize winner Dr Elizabeth Blackburn. They are sections on the end, the tips, of the long, curly, spiral shaped DNA chains that are the chromosomes. As more research was done over several decades it was found that for our genes (on the chromosomes) to work perfectly to run our bodily operations, these telomeres on the ends have to be in good condition. But they tend to break down, to fray and become shorter over the years. In animals or people whose telomeres remain in good shape, the person or animal lives long and resists most chronic diseases. Conversely, creatures that develop chronic diseases and die young usually have the shortest telomeres. If the length and integrity of telomeres can be maintained – it seems – health and long life become much more likely.
Then came the research on stress and telomeres. In about the year 2000 certain scientists approached Dr Elizabeth Blackburn’s team and asked them to collaborate in examining a relationship between life stress and telomere health. A whole series of studies on people suffering different kinds of stress found that they had much shorter telomeres (and less of the enzyme that repairs telomeres) than non-stressed people of similar age and background. They found strong correlation between the amount of emotional / mental stress that people reported, and their telomere length. While a lot more scientific work is going on, it looks likely that the telomere connection could be the main link explaining all the medical observations that link stress to so many diseases.
And now, to MEDITATION. Over the last 6 or 8 years Elizabeth Blackburn and a number of her colleagues have been having a really close look at the telomeres in the cells of people who take up and practice meditation. So far the results would seem to be extremely positive. A number of groups of people have been studied before and after undertaking meditation retreats (for example, a 3 month intensive retreat) and also undertaking weekly meditation training over an extended period of time. In all the studies reported so far there have been very significant changes in telomeres. That is to say, the subjects’ telomeres have become longer and stronger. Their telomeres have reversed the effects of aging and of stress. This should result in those people (people who take up meditation and continue to practice) becoming LESS prone to most chronic diseases and likely to live longer and healthier than they otherwise would have. A range of styles of meditation have been studied and all, so far, found to have some benefit for telomere health.
Like good scientists, these scientists strongly point out that much more study is needed to really understand what is going on. Including, I am sure, the question of: will meditation improve the condition of the telomeres (and genetic health) of all people, or is it certain people? If it is some people and not others, how do we know who will benefit?
Fortunately, since meditation seems to have lots of benefits, and no known unwanted side-effects, we don’t really have to wait for such research to take it up and benefit from it.
Anyway, it is interesting stuff. Thanks to Dr Ian Gawler for giving such a great introduction to this practical scientific info at his presentation at Cavanbah Hall, Coffs Harbour last July 15th.