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In the last month, the results of a study from researchers from the University of Calgary, Department of Oncology, reported significant findings related to how mindfulness practices or group support interventions help to maintain the cellular health of breast cancer survivors. This finding adds to the growing knowledge in this interesting area of science first reported in the December 2013 Mindfulness Matters Newsletter.

To help with the background, here is a quick review of what I discussed a year ago.

Two researchers from the University of California, Elissa Epel, and Elizabeth Blackburn, have conducted research that shows 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.

Here is a description of how it works. 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.

One other 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.

Here is a brief outline of the University of Calgary study.

Telomeric length in the DNA has been associated with breast cancer prognosis previously. However, there was no evidence yet to show any link between a mindfulness-based cancer recovery (MBCR) program and Supportive-Expressive group therapy (SET) on telomeric length. Please recall that it is important for telomeric length to be maintained in order for cellular health to be maintained.

The researchers measured the telomeric length pre and post program with 3 different groups. One group took the MBCR program, which focused on training in mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha Yoga. A second group took the SET therapy which focused on emotional expression and group support. Both of these opportunities are considered major interventions that help reduce distress. The third group, the randomized control, received a minimal intervention, a 1 day stress management seminar.

The researchers found that telomeric length was maintained in the two group who received the major intervention, either MBCR or SET, while the telomeric length shortened in the control group and these findings were found to be statistically significant.