Telomeres, mindfulness, illness, dying young and our impulsive, inattentive world

by Nov 24, 2012Mindfulness, Stress0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes
A fascinating new study this week showed that people who have minds that wonder more, who cannot concentrate as much, also have shorter telomeres, a classic biomarker for ageing and cellular death. Telomeres protect the end of chromosomes and are a good predictor of immune functioning, early death and disease [1]. Participants were measured for aspects of psychological distress and well-being. The sample was highly educated and had a narrow range of both chronological age and psychological stress (most were low stress). Those with  a tendency to mind wander and concentrate less on tasks basically had shorter telomeres. Given that so much is suggesting that people’s attention spans are shortening, then this is a worrying finding.

We know that other related matters also affect the length of telomeres. We know for example that heighten levels of stress is linked both to shorter lifespans, but also shortened telomeres [2]. There appears to be a dose related response, so that the more the stress, the bigger effect on telomere length and the more likelihood of all kinds of diseases, from cancer to diabetes to heart disease [3]. Indeed a resent study even found that stress in intrauterine life gave rise to shortened telomeres right up until adulthood [4].

Of course a lot of research is showing that when people are anxious and stressed, or indeed traumatised, we see a speeding up of metabolic processes, something that evolutionary lifehistory theorists describe. A lot of this is linked to the extent to which stressors overwhelm us, as opposed to us being able to take them in our stride. One recent longitudinal study showed clearly that the degree of stress people experience, and their response to it (eg cortisol levels) was predictive of their health outcomes some 10 years later [5]. Elissa Epel, one of the main authors of the recent, and indeed other telomere studies, said ‘”Results suggest the possibility that the attitude of acceptance of negative experiences might be one of the factors that promotes greater ability to be more present — to be okay with one’s current experience and not avoid the unpleasant aspects of everyday experiences”.

Related to this it is probably no coincidence at all that other studies have shown that mindfulness meditation might actually give rise to a lengthening of telomeres. After all mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing stress, increasing concentration, aiding immune function, enabling people to face rather than defend against difficult experiences and has a range of other effects which seem like they should improve health outcomes, immune response and indeed telomere length [6]. Other recent studies have suggested exactly this, that by attending intensive mindfulness retreats participants experienced increases in perceived control and decreases in negative affectivity which seems to have contributed to an increase in telomerase activity, and had implications for telomere length and immune cell longevity [7].

Such preliminary results seem very hopeful, and indeed are what we might expect. One would similalrly expect that other forms of therapy that help people at manage stressful experiences and face and bear difficult realities, might have similalr effects.

When we feel calm, at ease, can accept what life throws at us, and our mood is good, then we can concentrate better,, are less ‘jumpy’, and we have known for a long time stress and adverse life events seriously affect immune functioning [8]. In a world which seems to be speeding up at a frightening pace, when multi-tasking is becoming nor only more the norm, but what young people are aspiring to, when ADHD and hyperactivity is growing exponentially,  there are worrying warning bells being sounded here.


[1]        E. S. Epel, E. Puterman, J. Lin, E. Blackburn, A. Lazaro, and W. B. Mendes, ‘Wandering Minds and Aging Cells’, Clinical Psychological Science, Nov. 2012.

[2]        E. S. Epel, E. H. Blackburn, J. Lin, F. S. Dhabhar, N. E. Adler, J. D. Morrow, and R. M. Cawthon, ‘Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 101, no. 49, pp. 17312–17315, 2004.

[3]        L. H. Price, H. T. Kao, D. E. Burgers, L. L. Carpenter, and A. R. Tyrka, ‘Telomeres and Early-Life Stress: An Overview’, Biological Psychiatry, 2012.

[4]        S. Entringer, E. S. Epel, R. Kumsta, J. Lin, D. H. Hellhammer, E. H. Blackburn, S. Wüst, and P. D. Wadhwa, ‘Stress exposure in intrauterine life is associated with shorter telomere length in young adulthood’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 33, pp. E513–E518, 2011.

[5]        D. M. Almeida, J. R. Piazza, R. S. Stawski, and L. C. Klein, ‘The speedometer of life: Stress, health, and aging’, Handbook of Aging. New York: Elsevier, 2011.

[6]        E. Epel, J. Daubenmier, J. T. Moskowitz, S. Folkman, and E. Blackburn, ‘Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1172, no. 1, pp. 34–53, 2009.

[7]        T. L. Jacobs, E. S. Epel, J. Lin, E. H. Blackburn, O. M. Wolkowitz, D. A. Bridwell, A. P. Zanesco, S. R. Aichele, B. K. Sahdra, and K. A. MacLean, ‘Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators’, Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 664–681, 2011.

[8]        V. J. Felitti and R. F. Anda, ‘The relationship of adverse childhood experiences to adult medical disease, psychiatric disorders and sexual behavior: implications for healthcare’, The hidden epidemic: The impact of early life trauma on health and disease, pp. 77–87, 2010.

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