Longevity: Lengthen Your Telomeres with Meditation
and Die Like a Squirrel
By Sharon Montes, MD
Chris went to see his doctor and asked him if he would live to be a hundred.
“Well, there are some easy ways to judge,” said the doctor. “Do you smoke or drink?”
“No,” Chris replied. “I’ve never done either.”
“Do you gamble?”
“Drive fast cars?”
Chris shook his head.
The doctor leaned over confidentially. “Fool around with any women?”
he said, with a little grin.
Chris shook his head sadly. “No Doc-never.”
“Well then,” cried the doctor. “What do you want to live to be a hundred for?”
My perspective on how long I want to live and what kind of life I want to lead in my twilight years changes from decade to decade. This column started as a conversation about clowns and dance. Laughter, authentic heart-full connections, and movement are all important components of a high quality long life. Instead, today we will be having a conversation about squirrels and telomeres.
After studying geriatrics and learning about the idea of compressing the morbidity and disability of aging into the last bit of life, I have held the goal of dancing until the day I die. Alternatively, I tell people that I want to die like a squirrel – running and jumping until it is my time to either fall off the tree or crawl into a hole up in my tree and pass away. This theory and imagery and is captured by the following graph.
Optimal performance and function over course of lifespan –
Comparison of squirrel and human
The question is what I need to do at this moment to design a life that allows me live and die efficiently or in a quality-filled way. The answer to that is found in the classic wisdom of ancient healing traditions as well as the practice and science of lifestyle medicine that has accumulated over the last few decades. While there are many brilliant humans teaching about the advantages of healthy lifestyle, I have a particular fondness for Dr. Dean Ornish.
I first learned about his work while doing my family medicine residency at a regional trauma center in Texas. As a resident, I received fantastic training in how to keep the physical body alive but only minimal training in how to effectively teach people how to prevent or reverse chronic disease. I felt a connection with Dr. Ornish because he had attended medical school in Texas. While I was in the trenches of the emergency room and intensive care unit, he was researching ways to reverse heart disease. His research started with a small group of people with such severe heart disease that they got chest pain or shortness of breath with simple activities of self-care. With disease beyond cure from medication, they were also too sick for surgery. These people agreed to participate in this “lifestyle” research. Wow! These people had coronary arteries that OPENED and heart muscle that healed as a result participating in a four part lifestyle program that included plant-based diet, exercise, stress management, and social support.
While western medicine does a decent job of emphasizing the importance of diet and exercise, Dr. Ornish’s research demonstrated ways to emphasize the additional importance of stress management and social support/connection for physical health. (Meditation is one of his personal stress management practices.) As I explored integrating his protocols with my patients, I was very surprised to learn that social connection and support was frequently more difficulty to integrate into my patient’s lives than change in nutrition or increasing movement. (Notice I am not using those words DIET and EXERCISE…. We are framing this as a conversation about lifestyle, not short-term prescriptions.)
Building on this work, other researchers have found that meditation and nutrition can actually change the structure of our genes. Dr. Ornish and others have shown that the lifestyle decisions that we make actually turn on or turn off genes. One study “Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention” (http://www.pnas.org/content/105/24/8369.full.pdf) of men with low-risk prostate cancer who followed a program of intensive nutrition and lifestyle changes showed changes in genetic activity after only three months on the program. Genes that promote cancer suppression were up-regulated, while genes lead to cancer promotion were down regulated.
If you imagine our genes to be a spiral of proteins that wind and unwind to give form to various chemicals and structures in our body, the telomere is the “cap” at the ends of the spiral that keeps the spiral in order. (One writer compares it to the plastic coating on the end of a shoelace that keeps the threads from unraveling.) With time and successive cell divisions, our telomeres become shortened and our chromosomes become somewhat frayed. It has been shown that healthy diets and stress management/meditation can lengthen our telomeres. This in turn leads to our genes
During yoga class yesterday, I imagined and spoke to the telomeres in each cell of my body, imagining them strong and long and growing with each breath and stretch. This morning during my meditation time, I experienced my telomeres in each chromosome as bright and tight. This evening while eating out, I chose the low-fat vegetable soup.
What are the genes you are turning on (cancer suppression, repair of blood vessel lining, creation of new neural synapses)?
What environment are you bathing your telomeres in? What is the message you are giving your genes by the choices you make each moment?
“The two A’s.” This photo shows my aunt who is currently 92 and lives independently in her own apartment and my daughter who is now 14 and expresses independence in thought, word and action. They are both part of my social connection that baths my genes in the chemistry of love and light.
Sharon Montes, M.D. – practiced and taught family medicine in medical schools for 17 years. Former medical director of University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine, Dr. Sharon Montes is currently living in Loveland, Colorado, joyfully dancing with 10,000 things and preparing to open a Lifestyle Medicine practice. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and her blog site is http://drsharoninfo.blogspot.com/