Lifestyle changes that bring to mind David Carradine's "grasshopper" character in the cult 1970s TV series Kung Fu have the power to reverse ageing at a fundamental level, evidence suggests.
A pilot study comparing two groups of cancer patients found a genetic effect on cells that protects against diseases of ageing and premature death.
Its authors believe their findings have far-reaching implications for everyone, not just cancer sufferers.
The research focused on telomeres - caps on the ends of chromosomes, the twisted strands of DNA housing our genes - that have a similar function to the plastic tips of shoelaces.
Just as shoelace tips stop fraying, telomeres keep chromosomes stable and prevent mix-ups when cells divide.
Telomeres shorten as we age and shorter telomeres have been associated with a greater risk of early death and age-related conditions such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes, cancers and vulnerability to infection.
Story continues below...
Research published just last month in the journal Health Psychology shows that mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it's also linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
It lets us get to know our true selves. Mindfulness can help us see beyond those rose-colored glasses when we need to really objectively analyze ourselves. A study in the journal Psychological Science shows that mindfulness can help us conquer common "blind spots," which can amplify or diminish our own flaws beyond reality.
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that college students who were trained in mindfulness performed better on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE, and also experienced improvements in their working memory. "Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with widereaching consequences," the researchers wrote in the Psychological Science study.
A 2011 study in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Disease shows that even though mindfulness training may not help to lessen pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis, it could help to lower their stress and fatigue.
University of Oregon researchers found that integrative body-mind training -- which is a meditation technique -- can actually result in brain changes that may be protective against mental illness. The meditation practice was linked with increased signaling connections in the brain, something called axonal density, as well as increased protective tissue (myelin) around the axons in the anterior cingulate brain region.
Ever wondered why mindfulness meditation can make you feel more focused and zen? It's because it helps the brain to have better control over processing pain and emotions, specifically through the control of cortical alpha rhythms (which play a role in what senses our minds are attentive to), according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Mindfulness meditation improves our focused engagement in music, helping us to truly enjoy and experience what we're listening to, according to a study in the journal Psychology of Music.
You don't have to actually be meditating for it to still benefit your brain's emotional processing. That's the finding of a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which shows that the amygdala brain region's response to emotional stimuli is changed by meditation, and this effect occurs even when a person isn't actively meditating.
The health benefits of mindfulness can be boiled down to four elements, according to a Perspectives on Psychological Science study: body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of emotion and regulation of attention.
Doctors, listen up: Mindfulness meditation could help you better care for your patients. Research from the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that doctors who are trained in mindfulness meditation are less judgmental, more self-aware and better listeners when it comes to interacting with patients
Sure, we love all the things meditation does for us. But it could also benefit people we interact with, by making us more compassionate, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard universities found that meditation is linked with more virtuous, "do-good" behavior.
Research from the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine shows that mindfulness coupled with art therapy can successfully decrease stress symptoms among women with breast cancer. And not only that, but imaging tests show that it is actually linked with brain changes related to stress, emotions and reward.
Loneliness among seniors can be dangerous, in that it's known to raise risks for a number of health conditions. But researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that mindfulness meditation helped to decrease these feelings of loneliness among the elderly, and boost their health by reducing the expression of genes linked with inflammation.
Not only will your health benefit from mindfulness meditation training, but your wallet might, too. Research in the American Journal of Health Promotion shows that practicing Transcendental Meditation is linked with lower yearly doctor costs, compared with people who don't practice the meditation technique.
Aside from practicing good hygiene, mindfulness meditation and exercise could lessen the nasty effects of colds. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health found that people who engage in the practices miss fewer days of work from acute respiratory infections, and also experience a shortened duration and severity of symptoms.
As many as one in five pregnant women will experience depression, but those who are at especially high risk for depression may benefit from some mindfulness yoga. "Research on the impact of mindfulness yoga on pregnant women is limited but encouraging," study researcher Dr. Maria Muzik, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. "This study builds the foundation for further research on how yoga may lead to an empowered and positive feeling toward pregnancy."
Teaching teens how to practice mindfulness through school programs could help them experience less stress, anxiety and depression, according to a study from the University of Leuven.
Trying to shed a few pounds to get to a healthier weight? Mindfulness could be your best friend, according to a survey of psychologists conducted by Consumer Reports and the American Psychological Association. Mindfulness training was considered an "excellent" or "good" strategy for weight loss by seven out of 10 psychologists in the survey.
We saved the best for last! A University of Utah study found that mindfulness training can not only help us better control our emotions and moods, but it can also help us sleep better at night. “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was associated with lower activation at bedtime, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress," study researcher Holly Rau said in a statement.
The scientists looked at two small groups of men with early non-aggressive prostate cancer who had not undergone surgery or radiotherapy but were having regular "active surveillance" condition checks.
One group of 25 men continued life as normal without making any changes.
Ten other participants underwent a radical lifestyle transformation, supervised by doctors, nutritionists and psychologists.
Their diet was switched to one high in plant-based proteins, fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and processed carbohydrates, and they were taught de-stressing techniques such as yoga and meditation.
They also engaged in moderate levels of exercise, such as walking for 30 minutes six days a week, and were given social support including counselling.
After five years, blood tests showed that the telomeres of the healthy lifestyle group had lengthened significantly by an average of 10%.
Those of the "no change" control group decreased in length by an average of 3% over the same period of time.
But members of the control group who chose to adopt a healthier lifestyle were also able to maintain longer telomeres.
The study, reported in the journal The Lancet Oncology, found no significant difference between the groups in levels of PSA, the blood marker used to monitor the progress of prostate cancer.
Nevertheless, the scientists believe their findings carry an important health message.
Professor Dean Ornish, from the Preventive Medicine Research Institute at the University of California in San Francisco, US, who led the team, said: "The implications of this relatively small pilot study may go beyond men with prostate cancer.
"If validated by large-scale randomised controlled trials, these comprehensive lifestyle changes may significantly reduce the risk of a wide variety of diseases and premature mortality.
"Our genes, and our telomeres, are a predisposition, but they are not necessarily our fate."
It is well known that each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten. In the end they can no longer ensure chromosomal stability and genetic mistakes start to occur.
Eventually the cell freezes and stops dividing, a state known as senecense, or destroys itself.
The speed at which telomeres shorten varies in individuals and biological ageing is faster in people with rapidly-shortening telomeres.
Short telomere length in white blood cells is especially associated with age-related diseases, including many types of cancer.
It has been suggested as a trigger mechanism for the genetic scrambling associated with prostate cancer. Men with short telomeres in prostate cancer-associated cells are much more likely to die from the disease.
Previous research has linked a number of non-genetic factors with altered telomere length, the scientists pointed out. One of these is chronic or severe psychological stress, which has been shown to accelerate biological ageing.
Emotional stress in mothers has been correlated with short telomere length in white blood cells.
In the new study, the researchers found that higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin were associated with shorter white blood cell telomeres.
The research is the first to indicate that lifestyle changes can have a beneficial impact on telomeres over a long period of time.
Earlier work by the same team showed that a three-month meditation retreat significantly increased activity of an enzyme that helps to maintain telomere length.
The scientists wrote: "In conclusion, our comprehensive lifestyle intervention was associated with significant increases in relative telomere length in men with early-stage prostate cancer, compared with active surveillance alone.
"Adherence to these healthy behaviours was also associated with increased relative telomere length when all study participants were assessed together.
"These results add to existing data and suggest that further investigation in randomised trials in larger and different populations would be useful."
Biochemist Dr Lynne Cox, from Oxford University, said: "The association between short telomeres, stress and poor health is well documented in the literature. This new study suggests that reducing stress, improving diet and increasing exercise have the effect of not only preventing telomere loss but also of leading to small but significant increases in telomere length, as measured in circulating white blood cells.
"The greater the adherence to the healthy lifestyle changes, the greater the increase in telomere length measured; it is perhaps too soon to judge whether this increase in telomere length will correlate with increased longevity or healthspan.
"There are two things to bear in mind here. Firstly, short telomeres that occur as result of chronic stress are highly associated with poor health, and studies in mice have shown improved tissue health when telomeres are restored experimentally.
Secondly, by contrast, globally increasing telomere length in cancer-prone mice actually predisposes to more aggressive cancers.
"The small increases in telomere length in this new human study are more likely to correlate with improved health than cancer risk, though it is too early to be definite."