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Meditation might ward off the effects of ageing

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A study at a US Buddhist retreat suggests eastern relaxation techniques can protect our chromosomes from degenerating.

High in the mountains of northern Colorado, a 100-foot tall tower reaches up through the pinetops. Brightly coloured and strung with garlands, its ornate gold leaf glints in the sun. With a shape that symbolises a giant seated Buddha, this lofty stupa is intended to inspire those on the path to enlightenment.

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-calledShamatha 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.

It’s not just an abstract concept. People with shorter telomeres are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And they die younger.

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 itslowed 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.

Read More Here

Via http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/24/meditation-ageing-shamatha-project

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Written by Nokgiir

April 27, 2011 at 9:58 pm

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