Loving-kindness meditation might slow the aging process in women, based on a small study by researchers at Harvard Medical School.
In the new study, scientists analyzed white blood cells from 37 adult men and women, of whom 15 had practiced loving-kindness meditation almost every day for at least four years.
The researchers measured length of participants’ telomeres — regions at the end of chromosomes. Shortened telomeres have been linked in humans to chronic stress, mood disorders and accelerated aging.
The scientists found that women who practiced lovingkindness meditation had significantly longer telomeres than women who did not. But telomere length in men was the same whether or not they practiced loving-kindness.
The results for women remained significant when researchers controlled for differences in body mass index (BMI) and history of depression between meditators and nonmeditators. (The groups resembled each other in terms of age, gender, race, education level and history of trauma.)
Why was the positive result seen only for women? The study’s authors noted that female participants had practiced lovingkindness meditation longer than their male counterparts, although the difference wasn’t statistically significant.
“We could also speculate,” they wrote, “that [loving-kindness] practice leads to greater psychological, and therefore physiological, changes in women because they are able to utilize it better.”
Loving-kindness focuses on emotions, not thoughts, and brain scans of women show they rely more on the “emotional” parts of their brain for performing certain tasks. When women are shown pictures and asked to label and assign emotions, for example, they use their amygdalas more than men do. The amygdala is a brain structure that helps regulate and interpret emotions.
The study’s limitations included its small sample size and the fact that the loving-kindness practitioners also practiced insight meditation. In addition, researchers did not measure participants’ self-reported stress levels, only telomere length.
The study appears in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.