Monday, January 28, 2013


‘Anyone can get old,’ said the great comedian Groucho Marx (pictured left). ‘All you have to do is live long enough.’ He certainly did, although he didn’t enjoy great physical health in his later years.

A recent University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) study published online in the November 15, 2012 edition of the Association for Psychological Science journal Clinical Psychological Science has found that people who reported more presence ‘in the moment’ had longer telomeres, even after adjusting for current stress in their lives.

Telomeres are DNA-caps that prevent the ends of chromosomes from fusing with nearby chromosomes or deteriorating. They are biomarkers for aging and are known to get shorter and shorter when the body undergoes physiological and psychological stressors. What's more, as earlier research pioneered at UCSF showed, the shorter the telomeres, the earlier disease and death can be predicted.

The scientists studied 239 healthy women aged between 50 and 65 to see how many tended to be focused on the present and how many were inclined to focus on being elsewhere and on things other than the present. Those with more mind wandering had shorter telomeres. Whether the mind wandering causes the aging-linked shortening of telomeres or whether the state of being that focuses on the present actually protects telomeres isn't known yet. However, there is reason to suspect that being mindfully aware of the present could be the key. (Previous studies have found that mindfulness mediation is associated with increased activity of an enzyme known as telomerase, which is responsible for protecting and, in some cases, replenishing telomeres.)

The study supports the possibility that a focus on the present assists in the promotion of health even at the cellular level. ‘Our attentional state---where our thoughts rest at any moment---turns out to be a fascinating window into our well-being. It may be affected by our emotional state as well as shape our emotional state,’ said Dr Elissa Epel, associate professor of psychiatry and lead author on the study. ‘In our healthy sample, people who report being more engaged in their current activities tend to have longer telomeres. We don’t yet know how generalizable or important this relationship is.’

Moving forward, Epel, along with Dr Eli Puterman, a psychologist in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues are developing a series of classes to promote more mindful presence, to see if this intervention protects telomere maintenance or even lengthens telomeres.

Journal Reference:
E S Epel, E Puterman, J Lin, E Blackburn, A Lazaro, W B Mendes. ‘Wandering Minds and Aging Cells.’ Clinical Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/2167702612460234

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