Taking some time out to realign your Ying with your Yang could lead to certain molecular changes that may protect against cellular aging and even dementia, according to a recent study in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
Researchers took 94 women – none of whom had much meditation experience – to a relaxing retreat in California, where half were enrolled in a six-day meditation course while the other half merely took it easy doing whatever they pleased. Taking blood samples from all participants shortly before the trip, just afterwards, and then 10 months later, the team sought to determine how both meditation and going on vacation affect the expression of certain genes.
At the same time, they conducted the experiment on a separate group of 30 regular meditators, examining a total of more than 200,000 different genes.
Results showed that all groups saw a reduction in the expression of certain genes involved in regulating stress, wound healing, and inflammation, reflecting how relaxing experiences reduce the need for these genes to be active. More interestingly, however, the researchers also found that the regular meditators had higher levels of an enzyme called telomerase than the other groups. This vital compound aids the build-up of protective sections of DNA called telomeres that sit on the ends of chromosomes and shield the genetic material they contain from decaying as we age.
Furthermore, all groups experienced a change in the concentrations of amyloid-beta proteins in their blood. These proteins can build up to form plaques in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia in old age. Interestingly, compared to the other participants, the experienced meditators all had lower ratios of harmful proteins to non-harmful proteins before starting the study, indicating that regular meditation may help to produce this desirable shift.
Blood samples taken after the participants returned from their week in the California sunshine showed that similar shifts in amyloid beta ratios had occurred in both the meditation group and the vacation group. As such, it seems possible that mindfulness exercises – or simply going on holiday – can produce both long and short-term protection against dementia.
On top of this, the expression of a gene called CLU – which codes for a molecule that “chaperones” amyloid beta proteins to the brain – was also downgraded in all groups, providing yet more evidence that both meditation and taking vacations can help protect against age-related cognitive decline.