New research suggests that compassion might be able to slow the aging process.
Gerontologists (scientists who research aging) probing into why we age have found that a major part of the effects of aging may actually be collateral damage in the body due to inflammation.
On the whole, inflammation is vital. It is part of the immune response that helps facilitate healing of the body. But the problem is that on the one hand inflammation helps us heal, but on the other it can also cause us harm. Over time it can chip away at the body, like waves gradually eroding a coastline. Just as a dripping tap gradually fills a sink and causes collateral damage to the floor, so the effects of inflammation can gradually build up and cause serious harm to the body.
It is now known that inflammation plays a significant role in many serious diseases, and especially so in cardiovascular disease -- a major killer in the western world.
The human nervous system controls levels of inflammation much like a brake slows a car down. That brake is the vagus nerve, and its role is known as the inflammatory reflex, first identified by Kevin J. Tracey, M.D., director of the Feinstein Institute and Professor and President of the Elmezzi graduate school of molecular medicine in Manhasset, N.Y. When the vagus brake is applied, inflammation reduces.
But it turns out that the vagus nerve doesn't have the same fitness in everyone. Its fitness is often referred to as "vagal tone" and can be thought of as something akin to muscle tone. Based on the fact that stimulation of the vagus nerve reduces inflammation and that low vagal tone is associated with higher inflammation, it is likely that higher vagal tone translates to a more efficient brake and therefore better mopping up of inflammation around the body.
How can we exercise our vagus nerves? One method that is emerging in the scientific journals is by practicing compassion. Just as exercising our muscles improves muscle tone, it seems like exercising in compassion increases vagal tone.
Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that practicing a lovingkindness meditation, of the sort practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, which involves cultivation of feelings of compassion for the self and others, significantly increased vagal tone over a period of seven weeks.
Stephen Porges, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has even referred to the vagus nerve as the nerve of compassion, due to its association with aspects of caretaking behavior.
And research at the University of California at Berkeley, led by Dacher Keltner, has found that people who are most compassionate tend to have high vagal tone. And the contrary is also true. People with the highest vagal tone seem to be very compassionate.
If this is anything to go by, it would mean that practicing compassion can slow inflammation by increasing the fitness of the vagus nerve and, by extension, it might even mean that compassion could slow the aging process.
The anti-inflammatory properties of compassion have now begun to be studied. In a 2009 study, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine, trained 33 people in a Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation, which involved the structured generation of feelings of compassion, and compared them with a group of 28 people who didn't do the meditation. After six weeks those who did the most compassion meditation had much lower levels of inflammation than those who did the least or none at all. And if the theory that inflammation is related to aging is correct, then this research certainly tells us that compassion could slow the aging process.
Maybe compassion is the elixir of life. Perhaps the reason we've never found the mythical philosopher's stone -- a legendary substance believed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life -- is because we've always searched for something outside of ourselves. Compassion is an inside job.
If this is true then the Philosopher's Stone was here all the time. We just never noticed. Maybe it's called the Philosopher's Stone because it takes a philosopher to even consider compassion to be the elixir of life.
So why is it that compassionate people everywhere aren't living until they're over 100? Many probably do. But we counter the effects of it with other lifestyle choices we make -- overeating, consuming too many unhealthy foods, the toxins and stimulants we take into our bodies, our unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking (too much), not exercising regularly and, of course, our mental emotional stresses of life.
Aging is a complex cocktail of many things including lifestyle and genetics. Compassion is only one ingredient in that cocktail.
But it might contribute more to the taste than we've ever considered.
That there are differences in vagal tone between individuals is discussed in Dacher Keltner, "Born to Be Good" (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2009). The book also discusses the relationship between compassion and vagal tone.