“There is an intriguing cluster of studies forming around the potential benefits of mindfulness meditation for a couple of other stress-related health issues that are just as universal as depression, anxiety, and pain: inflammation and aging. If meditation can decrease stress—as evidence suggests it does in not just those with certain conditions but healthy populations—then it would make sense that it may be able to somehow lessen or limit the inflammatory and aging processes that are associated with increased stress (such as cardiovascular disease.
Some early meta-analyses are bearing this out. For example, when it comes to inflammation, Vago says, “There seems to be some data showing [meditation] can improve inflammatory markers or decrease inflammation in the body.” A 2016 meta-review looking at mindfulness meditation’s impact on immune system biomarkers across 20 RCTs and 1,600 participants found that “mindfulness meditation appears to be associated with reductions in pro-inflammatory processes, increases in cell-mediated defense parameters, and increases in enzyme activity that guards against cell aging.” And a 2017 meta-review of 18 studies and 846 participants found evidence that “suggests that MBI practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases.”
“The evidence for mindfulness meditation practices on stress specifically have been very promising,” Vago says. “And whenever you’re able to decrease stress, you’re going to improve markers of inflammation and cellular markers of aging.”
As for aging, Hasenkamp is interested in a small but growing number of studies looking at the effects of meditation on telomere length, which is a biological marker of cellular aging. Telomeres are affected by many lifestyle factors, such as stress, and shorten as we age. According to Hasenkamp, “Shorter telomeres are associated with many bad health outcomes”—including aging-related diseases like cancer, heart failure, diabetes, and coronary heart disease—“and meditation seems to help preserve or lengthen telomeres.”
One study found, for instance, that participants in meditation retreats experienced telomere lengthening or an increase in telomerase activity (which mediates telomere growth) that also correlated with psychological benefits.
This research is in very early stages, Hasenkamp points out, but so far “agrees with several other lines of investigation showing that meditation may help slow the aging process.” That includes evidence suggesting meditation may protect the brain from normal cortical thinning (a sign of cognitive aging) and improve cognitive performance in elderly people. Smalley agrees, saying, “While brain studies remain small and many more are needed, there is increasing evidence that meditation might be a simple practice to protect the brain from stress.””
“A 2014 meta-review of 21 neuroimaging studies and about 300 meditation practitioners found eight brain regions that consistently displayed effects, including areas that support meta-awareness, introspection, body awareness, memory, self-regulation, and emotional regulation, as well as improved communication between hemispheres of the brain. According to the authors, these findings line up with others being reported across the field, including other brain studies, clinical/behavioral research, and anecdotal reports on individual experiences.”
“Despite all of the research done so far, experts caution against taking at face value grandiose claims that meditation is a wonder drug.”
“How do you capture the full picture of any one person’s meditative experience with brain scans and numbers measuring very specific outcomes? “The biggest challenge I see is that people see mindfulness meditation as very goal-directed, while part of meditation in general is to experience things ‘as they are,’” Smalley says. “There is a tendency to push too hard for some specific outcomes.” This fixation on particular results means we could be missing big pieces of the puzzle we’re not even looking for yet.”