Posts Tagged ‘telomeres’

Research on Ikigai

February 28, 2017

Research on ikigai, or purpose in life, is usually measured with statements such as, “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” and “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.  Respondents then assess these statements using scales that range from one to seven.  Bear in mind that these are just examples, the assessment form includes many more such statements.  The responses to all these statements are combined to form an overall index of purpose.  Although this might appear to be a simple form of evaluation, it delivers reliable and validated results.

Studies using these measures have demonstrated that people reporting a strong purpose in life live longer lives, on average, that those with a weak purpose.  A recent study that followed over seven thousand middle-aged America adults for fourteen years found that even a one-point increase on a seven-point scale of purpose resulted in an over 12% reduced risk of dying.  The person’s age or whether they’ retired did not matter.  What is even more impotent is that general measures of happiness or sadness did not influence the risk of death, not did they affect the impact of purpose in life.

Dr. Strecher spends his days at work studying facts that make us healthy or unhealthy.  Together, tobacco use, a poor diet, inactivity, stress, and other lifestyle factors contribute to about half of disease and early death.  This is not news.  There are many articles written on these issues, yet you rarely read about ikigai, or having a meaningful purpose in life, but current evidence indicates that it contributes at least as much to disease and death as do these other factors.

In a study of over 1,500 adults with heart disease followed for two years, every one-point increase a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 27% lower risk of suffering a heart attack.  In a study of over 6,000 adults follows for four years, every one-point increase on a six-pint scale resulted in a 22% reduced risk of stroke.

Great pains are taken in this research to avoid mistaking correlation for causation.  Other factors  that might actually be causing changes in the outcomes of interest are statistically controlled.

Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center followed over nine hundred seniors for seven years, looking for the incidence of Alzheimer’s.  Over that period, seniors with a low purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with a high purpose in life.  In a different study the same research team found a slower progression of the disease among those who had developed Allzheimer’s and had a high purpose in life.

People with ikigai, or a strong purpose in life, on average, do better psychologically and socially than those without.  They sleep better, have better sex, and are less likely to become depressed and are more relaxed.   Diabetics with ikigai are more likely to have their blood glucose under control.  People who have received drug and alcohol rehab are half as likely to relapse six month later if they started treatment with a strong purpose.  There are physiological factors underlying these results.  Ikigai is associated with an increase in natural killer cells that attack viruses and cancerous cells.  Ikigai is also associated with  reduction in inflammatory cell production and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol.)

These outcomes also translate into reductions in health-care costs.  After statistically controlling for initial demographics, health behaviors, and health status, every point improved on a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 17% reduction in nights spent in the hospital.  Someone on a six-point scale,  with a purpose of five would have an average of 36% fewer hospital nights per year than a person who had a purpose of two.  Dr. Strecher knows of no other lifestyle behavior that produces this effect on health care.

The 2009 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn, discovered the role of telomeres. Telomeres are located at the end of our chromosomes and act a bit like the plastic caps that keep shoelaces from fraying.  When our telomeres shorten, our chromosomes are more susceptible to damage and we’re more likely to get sick.

Stress damages chromosomes.  Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, so Blackburn and her colleagues created an experiment that randomly enrolled some subjects in a three-month meditation program, and others to a waiting list for the program.  The research question was whether meditation would reduce stress, which might, in turn, increase an enzyme, telomerase, that a fuels telomeres.

Compared to the control group, the meditators did have more telomerase.  However, they also found that the meditators were developing a stronger purpose in their lives, and it was this purpose in life, and not the meditation, that was associated with the higher levels of telomerase.

Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPS)

April 19, 2014

This post is based largely on entry point 25 (Time-In and Mindful Awareness Practices) of the Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology by Daniel J. Siegel. William James, who is regarded by many as the father of modern psychology, proposed more than one hundred years ago that the exercise of returning a wandering attention again and again would be the “education par excellence” for the mind. I remember reading his words when I was a student many years ago thinking “right on.” My mind wandering during my studies was a constant source of frustration. Later in my life I read James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. If memory serves me correctly, eastern religions were not among the varieties of religious experience discussed. Unfortunately there is an anti-eastern/pro-western bias in western education. Had James reviewed these eastern religions, he would have discovered practices in meditation and mindfulness that addressed this very problem.
The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) uses the term mindful awareness practices (MAPS) to the many approaches for developing the skill of being mindfully aware. These strategies focus attention on the present moment. They focus attention on intention and also create awareness of awareness. When the breath is supposed to be the object of attention, the focus of the mind usually wanders and becomes distracted, the intended goal is to redirect attention back to the breath again and again. If the intention of the practice, to focus on the breath, is forgotten, then the exercise will not be performed well. Stabilizing attention requires being aware of awareness, and paying attention to intention. These are the keys to mindful awareness that strengthens the mind itself.
Time-in is a term used to refer to the ways in which we can take time to focus inward, to pay attention to our sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts (SIFT). That is, we SIFT the mind’s inner experience. Doing this each day can promote improvements in emotion regulation, attention, and empathy. Increasing the capacity to be aware of awareness and pay attention to intention strengthens the brain’s circuits for executive functions. These executive functions include the ability to sustain attention, to avoid distractions, to selectively change attention and then focus on the designated target, and to allocate the resources necessary to complete a task successfully. Research done at MARC found as much executive function improvement as is found using stimulant medication in adolescents and adults with attention deficit challenges. Other research at the University of California has found that sustaining mindful awareness can increase telomerase, the enzyme needed to maintain the telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes that sustain the life of the cell.
There is some debate regarding whether being mindful is primarily a way of focusing attention on the present-moment experience or whether it also entails a state of positive regard for self and for others. COAL is an acronym for the notion of being aware that is imbued with kindness. COAL stands for curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. One kind regard it as either ironic or justified, but being concerned for others also benefits one’s personal health.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindful Awareness

March 25, 2014

This post is based on Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology who describe mindful awareness as a form of awareness in which we are alert and open to present experience without being swept up by judgments and prior expectations. This implies discernment or a moral stance that is one of positive regard for others, and a nonjudgmental awareness that is imbued with acceptance at its core, of compassion towards oneself and others.
A direct quote from 6-3 of the Pocket Guide follows: “Studies of those with mindful awareness using a broad application of these features reveal that it is of benefit to the health of the mind, in terms of balanced emotional regulation, flexibility, and approaching rather than withdrawing from challenging events. Being mindful makes you more empathic and improves the health of relationships. And being mindful improves the health of the body in terms of enhanced immune function and increased telomerase—the enzyme that maintains the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes and thus enhances cellular longevity. Mindfulness also helps you have more resilience in the face of chronic pain. Mindful awareness helps minds, relationships, and our embodied lives.”
Mindful awareness practices are available for children and adolescents as well as for adults, so mind-training practices have the potential to promote well-being and resilience throughout the life span. According to the annotated index mindful awareness practice is skill building training that focuses attention on intention and the cultivation of awareness of awareness. Repeated and regular practice has been shown to strengthen to regulate emotion and attention, improve empathy and insight, promote healthy immune functioning, move the electrical activity of the brain toward a “left shift” of approaching challenging situations and increase the activity and growth of regulatory and integrative regions of the brain. Examples of mindful awareness practices include mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, yoga, and tai chi chuan. More examples of mindfulness and meditation can be found by entering “mindfulness” or “meditation” into the healthymemory blog search block.
These practices have affected the integrated areas of the brain that link the cortex, limbic area, brainstem, and social inputs from other brains. These areas influence executive function to include emotional regulation and the focus of attention, as well as emotional and social intelligence. Included here are the anterior and posterior cingulate , the orbitofrontal cortex, and both the medial and the ventral aspects of the preftontal region, including the insula and the limbic hippocampus.