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Could a wandering mind make us age faster?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Mind wandering linked to cellular aging.

New research suggests a possible link between a wandering mind and aging. Being present in the moment is considered a sign of emotional and physical well-being. The finding is worth noting the next time you're driving, thinking about dinner and wondering if you forgot to lock the door when you left the house.

For the study, researchers focused on telomeres that are caps on the ends of DNA that protect chromosomes and a biological indicator of general and cellular aging.

The results showed people who can remain focused have longer telomeres. As we age, telomere length shortens from physical and emotional stressors.

Included in the study were 239 healthy adults, age 50 to 65 years who self-reported mind wandering tendencies. Presence of mind was defined as being focused on a current task versus thinking about other things.

The researchers assessed telomere length and mind wandering at the same time. The participants were also given tests to measure psychological distress and well-being. Most of the participants had low stress levels.

The finding suggests “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 a press release.

“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.” Because emotional state and telomere length were assessed together, the researchers say they may be other factors explaining the finding.

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The researchers are planning more studies that include classes designed to promote mindfulness. The goal is to see if learning to focus protects or even restores telomeres.

The scientists aren’t sure whether mind wandering affects cellular health or if it’s other individual characteristics that are responsible for the finding.

Berry Mendes, PhD, associate professor and Sarlo/Ekman Endowed Chair of Emotion at UCSF and co-author on this study said, “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.”

The study supports previous findings that mindful meditation, which promotes attention to the moment, compassion and acceptance increases activity of the protective enzyme telomerase, an enzyme that might even rejuvenate telomeres.

This is the first study to look at attentional state and telomere length. Epel said the findings are worth exploring further. Based on the new study finding, it might be possible that the ability to remain focused could lead to a longer life.

Based on the new study finding, it might be possible that a wandering mind somehow does make us age faster.

November 16, 2012

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