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Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres

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Understanding the malleable determinants of cellular aging is critical to understanding human longevity. Telomeres may provide a pathway for exploring this question. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. The length of telomeres offers insight into mitotic cell and possibly organismal longevity. Telomere length has now been linked to chronic stress exposure and depression. This raises the question of mechanism: How might cellular aging be modulated by psychological functioning? We consider two psychological processes or states that are in opposition to one another–threat cognition and mindfulness–and their effects on cellular aging. Psychological stress cognitions, particularly appraisals of threat and ruminative thoughts, can lead to prolonged states of reactivity. In contrast, mindfulness meditation techniques appear to shift cognitive appraisals from threat to challenge, decrease ruminative thought, and reduce stress arousal. Mindfulness may also directly increase positive arousal states. We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance. Aspects of this model are currently being tested in ongoing trials of mindfulness meditation.
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Keywords: appraisal; meditation; mindfulness; rumination; stress; telomerase; telomere length

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of California San Francisco, Department of Psychiatry, San Francisco, California, USA 2: University of California San Francisco, Department of Medicine, San Francisco, California, USA 3: University of California San Francisco, Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics, San Francisco, California, USA

Publication date: August 1, 2009

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