Meditation and Longevity

       “If I meditate, will I live longer?”

I am passionate about my own longevity.  I have a daily meditation practice.  I teach a weekly yoga class (a small part of my time, a large part of my life).  As a scientist, I study aging from a  practical as well as an evolutionary perspective.  I would dearly like to answer “yes” to this question.  But in my readings the last few days, the best answer I can offer is, “there are some data that hint in that direction.”  I can’t justify a more definite answer, and in fact I suspect that the question cannot be posed in experimental terms.  Still, there’s a lot more that could be done.

Imagine designing an experiment – even an idealized experiment – to test the effect of meditation on life span.  Animal models are useless.  Best would be to take a diverse group of people, divide them into two statistically-matched subgroups, and instruct one group to meditate and the other not to.  Everything else about their lives should be kept the same.  But meditation doesn’t work that way.  Over any substantial period of time, meditation practice is likely to change attitudes and habits and occupations.  These two groups of people will no longer be comparable.

This is just one of the pitfalls in trying to scientifically evaluate claims about meditation and life expectancy.  Of course, experiments with real human subjects must respect their freedom.  Realistically, all we can do is to compare a set of people who meditates with another set who do not meditate.  We can select them in such a way to match their ages, their sexes, their weights, diets, exercise habits, incomes and ethnicities.  But these groups will have had different life experiences, different social environments, and their attitude toward life will not be similar.  People who choose meditation have a take on the world and a set of values that likely leads them to pay more attention to care for themselves and others.  The culture and pratice of meditation are both conducive to that.  These social determinants of longevity are quite important, and any epidemiological study of meditation must use a combination of selection and ANOVA to compensate for inevitable differences between the two groups.  (ANOVA stands for Analysis of Variance, and it is a common mathematical procedure for separating and evaluating various contributing causes of one outcome.)  There would be inevitable ambiguity in how to translate the question into statistical terms.  For example, a person may tell you that his meditation practice led him to give up smoking.  Do we compare this against a matched control who continues to smoke, or to a subject who quit smoking without practicing meditation?  Do we count the benefits of improved self-care as part of the benefit of meditation, or do we factor it out as if it were an independent decision?

The study we are imagining would have to include a large number of subjects with detailed information about each individual’s health and life style.  It has never been attempted, to my knowledge.  The studies that have been done are far more modest, and so the evidence that we have is at best tentative and indirect.

 

The studies that we do have fall in three categories:

  • Meditators tend to be healthier.  But how much of this is because people who make a commitment to meditation are more likely to care for themselves better in other ways?

For example, in a new article (Hoge 2013) naively measures telomere length in people who meditate and people who don’t. While they find a significant difference, it’s not warranted to interpret this as an effect of the meditation, because people who meditate are likely to take care of themselves better in other ways as well.

  • Before/after comparisons of physiology of meditators.  This is very helpful and suggestive, but we must always be careful about imputing long-term benefits from a short-term response, because there are short-term challenges (like exercise and fasting) to which the body responds in ways that slow aging in the long run.

  • A large but questionable scientific literature that is funded by the Transcendental Meditation establishment, which has cash to spend and a product to sell.  I regard this research with the same skepticism as drug trials sponsored by the drug’s manufacturer.  Walton reviewed this literature a few years ago.

The best work in the field comes out of the AME center at UCSF (Aging, Metabolism and Emotion).  I was impressed with one study for its clean design and significant outcome.  30 participants in an intensive meditation retreat were compared with a matched group of 30 people on a waiting list for the same retreat.  Telomerase activity was measured to be 40% higher on average in the retreatants.  I have written in this column and elsewhere that I believe telomere length is not just a predictor but a cause of aging and mortality.  A 40% increase in telomere activity sounds like a very significant number, but the catch is that the base telomerase in humans is very low.  For the most part, telomere length is in free-fall through a lifetime, and it is not clear that 40% more telomerase is enough to help that.

From the TM literature, here is a study (Walton, 2002) that demonstrates a reduction in blood pressure from meditation.  Now, it’s true that high blood pressure predicts heart attacks, but it’s not necessarily true that lowering blood pressure addresses the root cause of the problem, as I’ve argued a few weeks ago in this column. Atherosclerosis increases blood pressure and atherosclerosis increases risk of a heart attack.  But decreasing blood pressure without addressing the underlying atherosclerosis may not have a benefit.

The most relevant of the studies from the Maharishi Institute looked at a group of 202 older people identified as elevated risk for heart disease.   They were trained in Transcendental Meditation, and Schneider et al found a 23% reduction in all-cause mortality over 7 years.  This sounds impressive, until you realize how small the sample was.  The result was barely statistically significant.

Here is a study by Richard Brown of Columbia that finds health benefits from yogic breathing exercises, and extrapolates from there to speculate on life expectancy.

There’s a column in Huffington Post this week by Aditi Nerurkar that parallels some of my conclusions.

 

My Own Suggestions for Studies I Would Like to See

#1

Collect vital statistics from a variety of meditation studios and Buddhis sanghas for members who have died in recent years, and compare to similar statistics from selected church groups.

#2

Train a group of cancer patients in healing meditations focused on their particular ailment, and compare outcomes to a control group trained in a generic meditation technique.

#3

Here’s a thought: as real-time assays for telomerase become more practical, perhaps it will be possible to measure an individual’s telomerase levels while she is meditating.  In biofeedback therapy, people have learned to control a great many body functions that were previously thought to be autonomic: heart rate, temperature of a particular body part, electrical activity in a specific part of the brain.  Most people can learn to do this, though they can’t tell you how.  The protocol is simply to provide the person with real-time feedback about any measurable property of his body, and very often the person learns after a number of sessions to make the meter move in the desired direction.

Maybe we could learn to express telomerase.  Maybe there are other markers of the rate of aging that we could learn to modulate if only they were measured so that we could be offered real-time feedback.

 

The Bottom Line

I think there probably is a benefit from meditation for health and longevity, but it is difficult to substantiate this from the available studies.  All the evidence is indirect.  Perhaps the best justification for my position is that meditation has been found to increase positive affect, and people who are happier live a lot longer (“the nun study”).  There seems to be a connection between chronic stress and aging, but it’s not about the objective pressures a person is under, but rather the attitude and the way in which the challenges of life are perceived.  This is a central theme in the work of Elissa Epel, who first discovered the stress/telomere connection.

Studies that come out of Maharishi University are not of high quality, and aside from these there is a regrettable lack of attention to a practice for which there is preliminary evidence of broad psychological and physiological benefits and no down side.

For many of us, it is difficult to muster the consistent determination to focus our minds for a practice that we know will make our lives better. Maybe it will help to have the additional motivation that it will also make our lives longer.

5 thoughts on “Meditation and Longevity

  1. After observing good diet regime try to feel and wish good about others. Now follow what society tells you to do which will not cause harm any.
    Have constant rememberence of the almighty in mind.
    Do your work as demanded and ignore the consequences.
    Then you will not face emotions or stress.
    If one tries to do any thing personal expectations will lead to emotions and it’s effect on the physiology of the body mechanisms.
    Forget about the past. Don’t imagine for tomorrow , live for today.
    That is what lord Krishna told “Do your duty and leave the rest to me without expectations”.
    What is life and what for one should live? Live as it comes.c

  2. “barely statistically significant” is an interesting choice of words to use. Can you justify it with reverence to statistical textbooks, I wonder?

    BTW, here is what the American Heart Association recently said about the effects of TM, mindfulness, and other relaxation/meditation practices on hypertension:

    http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf
    Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association

    Summary and Clinical Recommendations
    “The overall evidence supports that TM modestly lowers BP. It is not certain whether it is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of BP lowering because there are few head-to-head studies. As a result of the paucity of data, we are unable to recommend a specific method of practice when TM is used for the treatment of high BP. However, TM (or medi- tation techniques in general) does not appear to pose signifi- cant health risks. Additional and higher-quality studies are required to provide conclusions on the BP-lowering efficacy of meditation forms other than TM.
    “The writing group conferred to TM a Class IIB, Level of Evidence B recommendation in regard to BP-lowering efficacy. TM may be considered in clinical practice to lower BP. Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials, all other meditation techniques (including MBSR) received a Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C recommendation Thus, other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower BP at this time.”

    You may think that some arbitrary study is well-done, but up until April 22, the various meta-analyses of TM and all other forms of meditation basically gave them all a fail, including because, despite being associated with major universities, most medidtation researchers are advocates/practitioenrs of the specific form of meditation that thy study and their research, no matter what you say otherwise, isn’t considered “unbiased” by skeptical reviewers, any more than research performed only by TMers is.

    The AHA statement quoted above says that head-to-head studies of TM vs other forms of meditation is required to really be sure what is better for the treatment of hypertension.

    Studies like this one:

    [Transcendental meditation, mindfulness, and longevity: an experimental study with the elderly.](http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2693686)

    Each meditation practice that was studied had an advocate on the research team. All meditation teachers from each tradition were trained to present themselves with the same level of professionalism as the TM teachers, as a way of equalizing expectations between meditation practices.

    I recently heard that TM organization is offering to teach research subjects TM for free as part of head-to-head studies on TM vs whatever. There are many dozens of mindfulness studies being published every month vs only 2-3 TM studies per month since anyone can become a mindfulness meditation teacher, so it is low-hanging fruit to do studies on mindfulness.

    However, the only way to settle the question: _which meditation is better for what?_ is to do large-scale (hundreds or thousands of subjects doing each form of meditation), and, from what I am hearing, the TM organization is hoping that they can encourage such studies to be done.

    • Dear Saijanai-
      I’m with you in this. I practice meditation myself, and I heartily agree that large-scale studies are warranted. My favorite idea would be to collect mortality data from meditation studios and Buddhist sanghas, and compare these to churches in the same towns. If you know anyone with the resources to undertake such a study, I would love to collaborate.
      But I stand by my judgment that the scientific case for life extension from meditation is not yet compelling. By “barely statistically significant” I meant simply that p=0.04. Thanks for your reference to the 1989 study by Alexander, which is a randomized, controlled study of just the kind we need more of. The results are encouraging, but not more than that because the sample size was so small.
      There is good statistical evidence that meditation lowers blood pressure, and good evidence that lower blood pressure is associated with lower mortality. However, this does not necessarily imply that meditation lowers mortality. Why? Atherosclerosis raises blood pressure and increases the risk of mortality. If you lower blood pressure in ways unrelated to atherosclerosis, it may offer no benefit for mortality. This is the case with low-sodium diets, which do lower blood pressure but don’t lower mortality.
      -JJM

  3. “There is good statistical evidence that meditation lowers blood pressure, and good evidence that lower blood pressure is associated with lower mortality. However, this does not necessarily imply that meditation lowers mortality. Why? Atherosclerosis raises blood pressure and increases the risk of mortality. If you lower blood pressure in ways unrelated to atherosclerosis, it may offer now benefit for mortality. This is the case with low-sodium diets, which do lower blood pressure but don’t lower mortality.”

    Actually, other than with TM, there is NOT “good evidence that meditation lowers blood pressure,” or at least, not enough to impress the American Heart Association.

    You seem to have an interesting take on TM research. Very little of current TM research is privately funded. Virtually all of the heart-related research money has come from the NIH and the studies have been conducted outside of the TM university, even though the lead researcher is a member of the TM university faculty (it’s money that was granted to the TM university, afterall).

    The latest cardiology study on TM was published a few months ago in the AHA journal _Circulation_:

    http://circoutcomes.ahajournals.org/content/early/2012/11/13/CIRCOUTCOMES.112.967406.full.pdf

    This study generated controversy because it was pulled from a different journal 15 minutes before online publication, but the actual explanation appears to be that new data was included at the suggestion of one of the original reviewers, which meant that the journal editors didn’t have time to review the new data before publication. At which point, the authors apparently decided to submit the study to a different journal with a faster acceptance rate than the original journal:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2012/11/20/investigator-defends-controversial-transcendental-meditation-paper/

    http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/transcendental-meditation-paper-pulled-minutes-before-publication-appears-in-a-new-journal/

    http://cardiobrief.org/2012/11/13/mysterious-disappearing-paper-finally-reappears-in-another-journal/

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/30875/title/Study-Pulled-Minutes-Before-Publication/

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2012/11/25/yet-another-look-at-the-transcendental-meditation-paper/

    http://cardiobrief.org/2011/06/28/new-concerns-raised-about-withdrawn-archives-meditation-paper/

    http://cardiobrief.org/2011/06/27/archives-decides-at-last-minute-not-to-publish-a-scheduled-paper/

    Ironically, none of the bloggers criticizing the paper, nor the people they cited, has actually written a Letter to the Editor of _Circulation_ with their concerns, or at least no such letter has been published since the article was published 9 months ago.

    BTW, the longevity study you cited above from 2005 actually included the subjects from the Alexander, Langer study from 1989 as part of the pooled longevity followup.

  4. Dear JJM,

    I just started reading this post as a way of researching the topic of “Meditation and Longevity”. As I started reading, I got quite excited since I have very similar objectives. I thought I had found a kindred spirit. Check out my blog http://www.PurposelyLiveTo120.com.

    However, when I got to the following para, I started scratching my head about your wish for objectivity:

    “A large but questionable scientific literature that is funded by the Transcendental Meditation establishment, which has cash to spend and a product to sell. I regard this research with the same skepticism as drug trials sponsored by the drug’s manufacturer. Walton reviewed this literature a few years ago.”

    I started chasing those links “Transcendental Meditation establishment” and “Cash to Spend” and “Walton reviewed”.

    “Cash to Spend” is link to the Wikipedia page for TM Movement. Not sure what that has to do with Cash to Spend.

    TM “establishment” sounds pretty derogatory but that is just a link to the TM.org website. Which, has a long list of articles under the tab “The Evidence”. Most of these articles are published in respectable journals and a couple even in JAMA.

    Walton paper has nothing but a summary of the all positive results of TM demonstrated through research and even a section on Mortality, which cites a study that I thought was quite interesting for proving link between meditation and longevity:

    “Mortality

    The first randomized, prospective study of the effects of the TM program on mortality was in a group of volunteer subjects in rest homes for the elderly.18 The majority (82%) of these subjects (average age at outset was 81 years) had high normal blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension. After 1 year, the TM group showed significantly greater improvements in several measures of quality of life and in blood pressure than the comparison groups. After 3 years, the number surviving in the TM group was significantly higher than for the usual care control group and the relaxation–response group. In a 15-year follow up of this study, the TM group showed lower CVD mortality rate than the combined control subjects, adjusting for age, gender, and pretest systolic blood pressure.19 More recently, in the only other known study on TM and mortality, a metaanalysis combining all 77 subjects from the previously mentioned study on rest home residents and all 125 subjects from the first randomized study on older subjects with hypertension found a highly significant reduction in all-cause mortality and a strong trend toward reduction of CVD mortality (P = 0.056) in the TM group compared with the active-treatment and usual-care control subjects combined.20”

    Oh, I must confess that I am a long term TM meditator of almost 30 years and might be biased. But I feel that I am pretty open to whatever the research offers in achieving my personal goals for healthy living to 120 and sharing with others my experiences.

    I also feel that If I were to find an evidence that some other method was more likely help achieve my goals, I would be willing to change my practice.

    – Ashok Thareja
    http://www.PurposelyLiveTo120.com

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