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Focus on ageing

30 November 2012

Does your mind ever wander? What? You’re having chickpeas for dinner tonight? Can you just pay attention, I asked, does your mind wander off and do you have trouble keeping focused on the present moment? Yes, those pants do look good on you and do I like the colour but could you just focus on the question for a second…oh, don’t bother. At least, don’t bother unless you are interested to know that those wandering thoughts could be making you age more rapidly. Got your attention now? Well, read on…

New research has examined the link between the tendency to be focused on the present moment, as opposed to having a mind that tends to wander off, and the biology of ageing. It turns out that wandering thoughts are bad for cellular components known as telomeres and this makes you age more rapidly.

Telomeres are bits of DNA protein at the end of chromosomes. When telomeres disappear your DNA cannot replicate itself properly and so shortening of the telomeres in your cells reflect ageing. Short telomeres have been linked to diseases of ageing like cancer, heart disease, and dementia. For this reason telomeres are seen as a central part of the ageing process and you can measure how a person is ageing by measuring their telomeres.

In the new study women aged between 50 and 65 were tested to establish the length of their telomeres. The women also self-reported whether they had a tendency to be “in the present moment” or for their mind to wander. Being “in the present moment” was defined as an inclination to be focused on current tasks while mind wandering was designated as the disposition to have thoughts about things other than the present. Both stress and depression were calculated out of the equation here since both of these have been reported to impact telomere length.

The analysis showed that people who reported as being more focused in the present moment had longer telomeres, even allowing for the effects of stress and depression.

If you accept telomeres as markers of ageing then a more focused mind also leads to less cell ageing whereas a wandering mind accelerates biological ageing. Admittedly, this study relied on self-reports of attentional state and more objective measures would be welcome. It may also be that rather than the nature of a person’s mind impacting telomeres, perhaps telomeres impact the mind. Or perhaps there is a third factor that impacts both but however you interpret it this finding does fit interestingly with other research in the area.

It has been shown in other studies that a wandering mind is not a happy mind and “happiness” has been linked to longevity and wellbeing many times. Mindfulness, as achieved through meditation in its many forms, and the “present” quality of the mind that comes from it is increasingly being advocated as the central plank of health and wellbeing.

In the end, whatever else may be concluded, your “attentional state” (the nature of your mind) is intimately linked with your physical wellbeing so you’d better pay attention to it.