Can Meditation Help You Live Longer?

New research suggests that quieting the brain leads to a longer life.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

Researchers have recently uncovered remarkable evidence that “quieter” brains are associated with a longer lifespan. In the study, published in Nature, Zullo et al., (2019) and his associates conducted a series of experiments with human and animal subjects that showed a direct connection between brain excitation and longevity. 

Specifically, researchers found that manipulating the activity of a protein called RE1-Silencing Transcription factor (or REST, which suppresses brain activity), was directly related to how long the organism lived. REST regulates the expression of certain genes and is involved in quieting down (reducing) neural activity. When this protein is blocked, it is associated with increased neural activity and earlier death. When REST was enhanced, the organisms lived longer. This was true for experiments involving worms, mice, and when examining the brains of humans who had died at various ages. These studies suggest that interventions reducing or decreasing brain activity could extend our life span.

ID 115045641 © Photoking | Dreamstime
Source: ID 115045641 © Photoking | Dreamstime

It has been well-documented that certain forms of meditation quiet the brain or suppress brain activity. In fact, this is the stereotypical idea of meditation—a quiet mind (Tarrant, 2017). From a brainwave perspective, reduced, or slower, brain activity can be demonstrated by increasing the amount of certain slow brainwaves, such as Alpha, or decreasing the number of fast brainwaves such as Beta, High Beta, or Gamma.

For example, EEG studies with advanced meditators have shown that Transcendental Meditation (TM) consistently results in increased Alpha1 brainwave activity (Travis & Shear, 2010). Zen meditations have been shown to increase alpha power, slow the alpha frequency, and demonstrate shifts of Alpha activity into the frontal lobes (Kasamatsu & Hirai, 1996; Murata et al., 2004; Takahashi et al., 2005). More recent research with mindfulness practices has shown decreases in Gamma activity during effortless awareness (van Lutterveld, et al., 2017).

The evidence that meditation may lead to a longer life has shown up in other studies as well. For example, a study from 2010 conducted by Tonya Jacobs compared participants at a three-month meditation retreat to a control group. She found that the meditation group had an average of 30 percent more activity of telomerase than the controls. Telomerase is an enzyme that protects chromosomes and is related to the speed of the aging process. Essentially, as chromosomes become older, the process of cell reproduction reduces the length of the telomeres. When these eventually disappear, the cells stop replicating and death occurs. So, while this study did not prove that meditation leads to a longer life, it did suggest that something about meditation has a protective effect on the aging process. 

ID 129086985 © Wanida Prapan | Dreamstime
Source: ID 129086985 © Wanida Prapan | Dreamstime

More direct evidence for the role of meditation on lifespan can be seen in the work of Schneider et al., (2005) who published a review of two studies examining the impact of Transcendental Meditation (TM) on longevity. In the first study, elderly subjects with high blood pressure were randomly assigned to learn TM, mindfulness meditation, mental relaxation, or progressive muscle relaxation. After 3 months, the TM group demonstrated significantly lower blood pressure than the other groups. When researchers examined the lifespan of long-time TM practitioners they were 23 percent less likely to die, 30 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease and 49 percent less likely to die of cancer when compared to a control group. 

These studies and others strongly suggest that meditation has the potential to impact how long we live. The most recent study by Zulllo, et al. (2019) is exciting, as it forms a foundation for a theory of how this actually happens and how we can influence the process. Perhaps meditation quiets and strengthens the brain, allowing it to function at a higher capacity with less strain, ultimately leading to a longer life. This idea reminds me of a teaching attributed to Yogi Bhajan that states that we are each born with a certain number of breaths, and when you use them all, you die. The trick to living a long life is to slow down, spend more time in a relaxed state, and literally, quiet down the mind.

References

Jacobs, T., et al., (2010). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology,  doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010  

Kasamatsu, A., & Hirai, T. (1996). An electroencephalographic study on the Zen meditation (Zazen). Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscienes, 20(4), 315-336. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1819.1966.tb02646.x

Murata, T., Koshino, Y., Omori M., Murata, I., Nishio M., Sakamoto, K., Horie, T., Isaki, K., (1994). Quantitative EEG Study on Zen Meditation (Zazen), Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1819.1994.tb03090.x.

Schneider, R. H., Alexander, C. N., Staggers, F., Orme-Johnson, D. W., Rainforth, M., Salerno, J. W., ... & Nidich, S. I. (2005). A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction in African Americans treated for hypertension for over one year. American journal of hypertension, 18(1), 88-98.

Takahashi T., Murata T., Hamada T., et al. Changes in EEG and autonomic nervous activity during meditation and their association with personality traits. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2005;55(2):199–207. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2004.07.004.

Tarrant, J. (2017). Meditation interventions to rewire the brain: Integrating neuroscience strategies for ADHD, anxiety, depression, & PTSD. Eau Claire, WI, PESI Publishing.

Travis, F., & Shear, J. (,2010). Focused attention, open monitoring, and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist, and Chinese traditions. Consciousness and Cognition, 19, 1110-1118.

van Lutterveld, R., Houlihan, S.D., Pal, P., et al., (2017).  Source-space EEG neurofeedback links subjective experience with brain activity during effortless awareness meditation. Neuroimage. 1:151, 117-127.

Zullo, J. M., Drake, D., Aron, L., O’Hern, P., Dhamne, S. C., Davidsohn, N., ... & Church, G. M. (2019). Regulation of lifespan by neural excitation and REST. Nature, 574(7778), 359-364.