A mind-body study is shedding light on the biological reasons why daily meditation can successfully lower stress.

Building on prior research, scientists from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior in Los Angeles conducted a pilot study to determine the effect of meditation on the immune system’s inflammation response to stress among family dementia caregivers. Caregivers of this type were selected as subjects because more people will find themselves caring for family members with dementia as the population ages. Also, caregiving is associated with chronic stress and a higher risk for developing depression.

Researchers randomly divided 39 subjects into two groups. One group practiced a 12-minute Kirtan Kriya meditation style from kundalini yoga that included chanting, finger movements known as mudras, and mantras. The second group listened to relaxing instrumental music on a CD for 12 minutes. Both groups completed their task at the same time each day.

Investigators collected data on depressive symptoms, on mental and cognitive functioning and on levels of telomerase activity—believed to promote immune cell longevity and reduce cellular aging—at baseline and after the 12-week intervention.

A key finding was that meditators showed an increase in telomerase activity. Data analysis also showed that in meditators mental and cognitive functioning improved and depressive symptoms decreased.

“The goal of the study was to determine if meditation might alter the activity of inflammatory and antiviral proteins that shape immune cell gene expression,” said lead study author Helen Lavretsky, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and member of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care program. “Our analysis showed a reduced activity of those proteins linked directly to increased inflammation.

“This is encouraging news. Caregivers often don’t have the time, energy or contacts that could bring them a little relief from the stress of taking care of a loved one with dementia, so practicing a brief form of yogic meditation, which is easy to learn, is a useful tool.”

The findings were reported in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2012; doi: 10.1002/gps.3790).