Shamatha Project, a three-month intensive meditation
retreat, Blackburn and UC Davis researchers found
telomerase activity in participants’ white blood cells
was one-third higher than in a control group’s.
Meditation may also cause positive changes in the brain
itself: in a Harvard-affiliated study in 2011, MRI scans of
participants in a mindfulness meditation program showed
greater gray-matter density in the hippocampus, a brain area
associated with stress, empathy, memory and sense of self. A
2015 UCLA study suggests meditation might help preserve
gray matter as well. Such structural changes confirm the
brain’s plasticity (ability to change as a result of behavior or
other external factors), though further research is needed.
That meditation lowers stress symptoms is clear: it
can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and fortify the
immune system. For people who find it hard to sit still,
Rao suggests simply quieting the mind for two minutes
and easing into longer sessions from there. Thirty minutes
twice a day is optimal, according to the Chopra Center in
Carlsbad, California. While that may sound tricky to fit
into a daily schedule, “if you say you don’t have time for
meditation, then you are definitely the type of person who
needs it most,” Deepak Chopra points out.
The bottom line: exercise, meditation and yoga may
boost telomerase and lengthen telomeres, potentially
resulting in a longer life.
Our digestive system literally has a mind of its own.
It’s controlled by the enteric nervous system, which
Columbia University neurogastroenterology expert
Michael D. Gershon calls “the second brain.” This complex system (about nine meters long from entry to exit)
has 500 million neurons — more than the spinal cord. It
sends and receives impulses, communicates with other
body systems, responds to emotions and has 30 major
neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine,
that influence wellness and mood. Ninety-five percent of
the body's serotonin can be found in the bowels.
Much of our immune system ( 70 percent) and its response
are regulated by the gut, or belly brain. Trillions of microorganisms live in our gut, mouth, skin and body, collectively
comprising our human microbiome. They digest food, synthesize nutrients and vitamins, and stop disease-causing
bacteria from invading the body. Microbiome research is
recognized as one of the most important emerging fields in
biomedical research. The health of one’s microbiome may
play a significant role in overall health, affecting conditions
such as autoimmune disorders and obesity.
In patients with diseases like irritable bowel syndrome
and Crohn’s, gut microbiome is often less diverse, altered by
our low-plant-fiber Western diet and antibiotics. Scientists
are excited by recent success with fecal microbiota trans-
plants (FMT), transfer of healthy fecal matter into ailing
patients, notably those with clostridium difficile (C. diff), a
Another study co-authored by Bredesen and Rao at the Buck Institute
has revealed a correlation between ApoE4 and Sir T1, an “antiaging pro-
tein.” ApoE4 causes a dramatic reduction in Sir T1, as seen in both neuron
cells and in brain samples from people with AD. “Through identifying drug
candidates that increase Sir T1, abnormalities such as creation of phospho-
tau and amyloid-beta associated with ApoE4 and AD could potentially
be prevented,” says Rao. “This research offers a new type of screen for
Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment.” The same study also revealed that
resveratrol, the antioxidant in red wine, can increase Sir T1 levels — another
affirmative vote for that evening glass of cab, in moderation of course.
While strides are clearly being made, larger trials are needed to support
the findings in Bredesen’s research and to determine whether Alzheimer’s
treatments that seem to succeed with mice can help people.
Telomeres and Longevity
Turns out sometimes bigger is better — at least with telomeres, the protective
microscopic shields at the end of our chromosomes that preserve our genetic
information. With each cell division (most cells can replicate 50 times), the
DNA is copied and the telomeres shorten. If telomeres get too short, the cell
can no longer divide and becomes inactive or dies. Healthy people have long
telomeres; unusually short telomeres can be predictors for disease, even
death. And while most would assume the telomeres of all older people are
short, the length of telomeres can actually fluctuate in individuals.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009
for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the
enzyme telomerase, which repairs and rebuilds them. At Yale she studied
a one-celled organism, tetrahymena, and deciphered the structure of telomeres, which she likens to the caps on the tips of shoelaces that keep them
from fraying over time. She found the enzyme while working with a grad
student on her team at UC Berkeley in 1984.
Now a professor of biology and physiology at UC San Francisco,
Blackburn has continued her research, linking shortened telomeres to
diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. For the past 13 years
her work with Elissa Epel, a UCSF psychologist, has studied connections between telomeres and stress. They found shorter telomeres and
decreased telomerase in spouses who were caring for mates with dementia and in mothers of children with chronic diseases.
So how do we lengthen our telomeres and build telomerase? Studies
have shown that people following a Mediterranean diet tend to have the
healthiest telomeres, because of the diet’s oxidative and anti-inflamma-tory effects. Exercise is a great stress buster. And studies by Blackburn
and others show that by counteracting stress and promoting well-being,
meditation and mindfulness block the shortening of telomeres. At the
Studies have shown that people
following a Mediterranean diet tend
to have the healthiest telomeres.