“I think, therefore I am” is perhaps the most familiar one-liner in western philosophy. Even if the stoners, philosophers and quantum mechanically-inclined skeptics who believe we’re living an illusion are right, few existential quips hit with such profound, approachable simplicity. The only catch is that in Descartes’ opinion, “we” – our thoughts, our personalities, our “minds” – are mostly divorced from our bodies.
The polymathic Frenchman and other dualist philosophers proposed that while the mind exerts control over our physical interaction with the world, there is a clear delineation between body and mind; that our material forms are simply temporary housing for our immaterial souls. But centuries of science argue against a corporeal crash pad. The body and mind appear inextricably linked. And findings from a new study published in Cancer by a Canadian group suggest that our mental state has measurable physical influence on us – more specifically on our DNA.
Lead investigator Dr. Linda E. Carlson and her colleagues found that in breast cancer patients, support group involvement and mindfulness meditation – an adapted form of Buddhist meditation in which practitioners focus on present thoughts and actions in a non-judgmental way, ignoring past grudges and future concerns -- are associated with preserved telomere length. Telomeres are stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal deterioration -- biology professors often liken them to the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres aren't known to cause a specific disease per se, but they do whither with age and are shorter in people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and high stress levels. We want our telomeres intact.
In Carlson’s study distressed breast cancer survivors were divided into three groups. The first group was randomly assigned to an 8-week cancer recovery program consisting of mindfulness meditation and yoga; the second to 12-weeks of group therapy in which they shared difficult emotions and fostered social support; and the third was a control group, receiving just a 6-hour stress management course. A total of 88 women completed the study and had their blood analyzed for telomere length before and after the interventions. Telomeres were maintained in both treatment groups but shortened in controls.
Previous work hinted at this association. A study led by diet and lifestyle guru Dr. Dean Ornish from 2008 reported that the combination of a vegan diet, stress management, aerobic exercise and participation in a support group for 3 months resulted in increased telomerase activity in men with prostate cancer, telomerase being the enzyme that maintains telomeres by adding DNA to the ends of our chromosomes. More recent work looking at meditation reported similar findings. And though small and un-randomized, a 2013 follow up study by Ornish, again looking at prostate cancer patients, found that lifestyle interventions are associated with longer telomeres.
The biologic benefits of meditation in particular extend well beyond telomere preservation. Earlier work by Carlson found that in cancer patients, mindfulness is associated with healthier levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a decrease in compounds that promote inflammation. Moreover, as she points out, “generally healthy people in a work-based mindfulness stress reduction program have been shown to produce higher antibody titers to the flu vaccine than controls, and there has been promising work looking at the effects of mindfulness in HIV and diabetes.” Past findings also show that high stress increases the risk of viral infections – including the common cold – as well as depression and cardiovascular disease.
The therapeutic potential of the mind-body intersect is well-known. Biofeedback – in which sensor-clad patients learn awareness of and control over various physiologic functions – has been around for decades and is used to treat pain, headache, high blood pressure and sleep problems, among numerous other conditions. And of course there’s the placebo effect, the complicated yet very real psychobiological benefit achieved from a patient’s expectations of a treatment rather than the treatment itself.
Though optimistic that meditative and social approaches are mental means toward better physical, and not just psychologic well-being, Carlson rightly hedges. “The meaning of the maintenance of telomere length in this study is unknown. However, I think that processing difficult emotions is important for both emotional and physical health, and this can be done both through group support with emotional expression, and through mindfulness meditation practice,” she says.
Carlson wonders if mentally-rooted telomeric changes are long-lasting, if the same patterns would hold true in other cancers and conditions, and what the effects of mental intervention would be if offered at the time of diagnosis and treatment – all questions she hopes to pursue.
According to a report published by Harvard Medical School in 2011, 6.3 million Americans were using mind-body therapies at the advice of conventional doctors – a surprisingly high number that has surely since grown. Still, prescription meditation – especially in the interest of physical health -- is far from the norm in Western medicine. And it remains unclear whether or not preserved telomeres actually prolong survival in cancer patients; or in anyone for that matter. But stress reduction in the interest of chromosomal preservation, and other possible health benefits, seems like a pursuit even a 17th Century dualist philosopher could get behind.