The short answer is “yes”, there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that there may be a link. Before I tell you about the study, let’s visit the biology and some of the history.
In the last 5 years, two researchers from the University of California, Elissa Epel, and Elizabeth Blackburn, conducted research that showed that high levels of stress, both real and perceived, seems to influence the rate at which we age biologically at a cellular level. The study suggests that stress impacts cell structure in a way that promotes cellular aging. You may wonder how this happens….read on….
Let’s talk about cellular structure first. We know that the human body is made up of trillions of cells. The nucleus of the cell contains our chromosomes which hold the DNA genetic information needed for cells to divide and remain healthy. If you think of a chromosome as being in the shape of a shoelace, there is a special structure of DNA at the end of the lace that is called telomeric DNA and, as we age, it deteriorates and shortens, not unlike the deterioration of a shoelace at its ends. In order for the cell to remain healthy, this telomeric DNA needs to stay intact. The research suggests that stress increases the rate of telomeric DNA shortening which compromises the ability of a cell to divide and remain healthy. Eventually the cell will no longer divide after there is sufficient shortening of the telomeric DNA.
Here is another interesting biological note. Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the researchers mentioned above, won a Nobel Prize a few years ago for discovering an enzyme that that circulates in our blood that helps to add back this DNA to the end of the chromosome. In other words, it repairs DNA structure. The enzyme was named telomerase. Interesting enough, the research showed that there was less of this enzyme present in individuals who were under high stress.
Now to tell you about a recent study. In 2013, a study reported in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reported on the effects of meditation on a variety of health measures for Family Dementia Caregivers. In the group that were practicing meditation, there was a 43 percent increase in telomerase activity in their blood samples compared to the group that was practicing relaxation exercises. While this was a pilot study of its kind, it is encouraging results to suggest that meditation may be linked to a decrease in the rate of cellular aging.