Scientific studies have suggested that a mind that is present and in the moment indicates well-being, whereas shifting our energy to the past or future can lead to unhappiness. Now, a preliminary UCSF study shows a link between mind wandering and aging, by looking at a biological measure of longevity within our DNA.
In the study, telomere length, an emerging biomarker for cellular and general bodily aging, was assessed in association with the tendency to be present in the moment versus the tendency to mind wander, in research on 239 healthy, midlife women ranging in age from 50 to 65 years.
Being present in the moment was defined as an inclination to be focused on current tasks, while mind wandering was defined as the inclination to have thoughts about things other than the present or being elsewhere.
Many practitioners of spiritual health tell us not to deny the problems we are facing, but to also not get lost in them either. Psychological sciences have shown us that being present brings us greater alertness and inner security, allowing us to face challenges more objectively and with greater calm.
According to the findings, published online in the new Association for Psychological Science journal Clinical Psychological Science, those who reported more mind wandering had shorter telomeres, while those who reported more presence in the moment, or having a greater focus and engagement with their current activities, had longer telomeres, even after adjusting for current stress.
The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but it turns out that so-called junk DNA plays critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health and consciousness because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.
As scientists delved into the “junk” — parts of the DNA that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins — they discovered a complex system that controls genes. At least 80 percent of this DNA is active and needed. Another 15-17 percent has higher functions scientists are still decoding.
Every human cell contains DNA and these strands genetically code us to who we are. Telomeres are the end caps of our DNA completing and protecting them but every time a cell replicates, these telomeres diminish. Telomeres typically shorten with age and in response to psychological and physiological stressors. At conception, your telomeres are 15,000 bases long but at birth, only 10,000 bases remain. Throughout your lifetime, your Telomeres continue to naturally erode. No one can live with Telomeres at less than 5,000 bases, so you can understand the importance in keeping your Telomeres as long as possible. In research pioneered at UCSF, scientists have discovered that telomere shortness predicts early disease and mortality.
As the study assessed mind wandering and telomeres at the same time, the researchers don’t yet know whether mind wandering leads to shorter telomeres, whether the reverse occurs, or some common third factor is contributing to both.
Mindful meditation interventions, which promote attention on the present with a compassionate attitude of acceptance, lead to increases in some aspects of health. Being present and observant in purity without judgment also means that we have no emotionality surrounding our observations. Our emotional well being is not placed in the outcomes of our life’s circumstances, but rather our wellbeing is placed inwardly and determined by a choice we make to remain calm, focused and expansive surrounding the multiple possibilities of the occurrences we are a witness to.
Previous studies have found meditation interventions are associated with increased activity of an enzyme known as telomerase, which is responsible for protecting and in some cases, replenishing telomeres.
Along with the new UCSF study, these findings support the possibility that a focus on the present may be part of what promotes health measurable at the cellular level, the researchers said.
“Our attentional state — where our thoughts rest at any moment — turns out to be a fascinating window into our well-being. It may be affected by our emotional state as well as shape our emotional state,” said Elissa Epel, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and lead author on the study. “In our healthy sample, people who report being more engaged in their current activities tend to have longer telomeres. We don’t yet know how generalizable or important this relationship is.”
Moving forward, Epel, along with Eli Puterman, PhD, a psychologist in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues are developing a series of classes to promote more mindful presence, to see if this intervention protects telomere maintenance or even lengthens telomeres.
In the current study, participants self-reported a tendency to mind wander, and were measured for aspects of psychological distress and well-being. The sample was highly educated and had a narrow range of both chronological age and psychological stress (most were low stress), all of which might have contributed to the ability to detect this relationship, Epel said.
The study is the first to link attentional state to telomere length and to control for stress and depression, Epel said. Previous studies have shown links between telomere length and particular types of stress and depression. Since this study relied on self-reported attentional state, she said, further studies directly measuring presence and mind wandering will be needed.
“We now have evidence for a new type of healing in which DNA can be influenced and reprogrammed by the way we think without physically modifying a single gene,” said Professor and geneticist Karina Mika.
“This study was a first step and suggests it’s worth delving into understanding the link between mind wandering and cell health to get a better understanding of whether there is causality and reversibility,” said Epel. “For example, does reducing mind wandering promote better cell health? Or are these relationships just reflective of some underlying long-standing characteristics of a person?”
“Results suggest the possibility that the attitude of acceptance of negative experiences might be one of the factors that promotes greater ability to be more present — to be okay with one’s current experience and not avoid the unpleasant aspects of everyday experiences,” she said.
“A number of emotion theories suggest that greater attentional control leads to less suppression of negative emotions, and thus less of the rebound effect of unsuccessful suppression,” said Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD, associate professor and Sarlo/Ekman Endowed Chair of Emotion at UCSF and co-author on this study. “Alternatively, attentional control may help us interpret emotions in a more constructive way, what we call ‘positive reappraisals.’ Such styles of thinking have been associated with healthy physiological states.”
“Over many millennia our minds and physical being have become time machines programmed to grow old and expire, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Mika. “Being ageless could be as simple as changing our emotional state and thinking differently,” she concluded.
Research on telomeres, and the enzyme that makes them, was pioneered by three Americans, including Blackburn, who co-discovered the telomerase enzyme in 1985. The scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for this work.