Previous research has shown that meditation and yoga offer numerous health benefits for breast cancer survivors, including reduced stress and fatigue and improved quality of life. Now, a new study suggests these activities may even be beneficial at a cellular level.
The research team – from the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Center, both in Canada – found that mindfulness-based meditation and supportive-expressive therapy protected the telomeres of breast cancer survivors. Their findings are published online ahead of print in the journal Cancer.
Telomeres are structures at the end of chromosomes that protect them from damage. Shortened telomeres are associated with increased aging and risk of disease, while longer telomeres are believed to protect against disease. Though the research is still in its early stages, scientists are increasingly looking to telomere biology as a pathway that may link psychosocial stressors with the progression of diseases like cancer.
“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” says principal investigator Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, of the Department of Psychological Resources at the Tom Baker Cancer Center.
For the study, Carlson and colleagues enrolled 271 female breast cancer survivors of an average age of 55. The women had completed all medical treatments at least 3 months prior to the study and were experiencing high levels of emotional stress.
Some of the women were randomly assigned to a mindfulness-based cancer recovery group, in which they were required to attend a 90-minute group session of mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga once a week for 8 weeks. In addition, the women were asked to practice meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes a day.
Other participants were placed in a supportive express therapy group. They were required to a attend a 90-minute group session once a week for 12 weeks, in which they were encouraged to talk about their feelings and concerns with other women in the group. The other women, acting as controls, were assigned to attend one 6-hour stress management class.
To allow the researchers to assess participants’ telomere length, blood samples were taken from the women before and after they completed their assigned interventions.
An ‘exciting and encouraging discovery’
Of the 271 women included in the study, 88 attended all the required sessions over the 3-month study period.
The researchers found that the women who were a part of the mindfulness-based cancer recovery group or the supportive express therapy group had greater telomere length at the end of the study, compared with controls. These findings, the team says, indicate that “it is possible to influence telomere length in cancer survivors through the use of psychosocial interventions involving group support, emotional expression, stress reduction, and mindfulness meditation.”
This is the first study to demonstrate such benefits, though the team notes that they are unable to determine the long-term effects that psychosocial interventions may have on telomere length, which is something they say should be investigated in future research. They point out that the number of women in the control group was small – only 18 were included – therefore the results may be disproportionate.
Furthermore, the researchers say previous studies have shown that telomere length may vary with breast cancer subtypes but they were unable to gather this information from participants. “Telomere length also may be affected by chemotherapy among patients with breast cancer,” they note, “but effects varied across participants in previous research.”
“It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all” given the short (3-month) period studied, says Dr. Carlson. “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news.”
Besides the beneficial effects demonstrated in this study, yoga and other active therapies could offer even more health benefits associated with physical activity. Past research indicates that breast cancer survivors often report lower levels of physical activity after completing treatment, which has been shown to compromise survival. Practicing yoga on a regular basis may help survivors maintain a high level of activity while simultaneously reducing harmful levels of psychosocial and biological stress.