November 18, 2012
Age-Related Biomarker Could Be Cause Of Wandering Mind
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
While previous research has suggested that individuals with wandering minds could be exhibiting signs of unhappiness, a new study shows that the inability to focus on a task at hand could be linked to aging.
In the new study, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) discovered that telomere length, a biological measure of aging at both the cellular and overall physiological level, played a role on whether or not a person would be present in the moment, or if they would be inclined to have thoughts about being somewhere else or doing something else.
The UCSF researchers recruited 239 healthy women between the ages of 50 to 65 and studied this biomarker of longevity.
They discovered that those who reported having difficulty focusing their attention on their current tasks had shorter telomeres, while those who were more aware and/or engaged with their ongoing activities had longer telomeres, even after the results were adjusted for stress levels.
According to the university, telomeres, which protect chromosome ends from deterioration and keep them from fusing with other nearby chromosomes, tend to become shorter with age.
Previous research at UCSF has discovered that telomere shortness can indicate early illness or death, and the new study shows a link between these so-called "DNA caps" and mind wanderers -- though they have not established whether one causes the other, or if a third factor is ultimately responsible for both, they added.
However, they believe that their findings, when combined with previous work in the field, could indicate that the ability to keep focused on the here-and-now might play a role in promoting overall health at the cellular level.
"Our attentional state -- where our thoughts rest at any moment -- turns out to be a fascinating window into our well-being. It may be affected by our emotional state as well as shape our emotional state," lead author and UCSF associate psychiatry professor Dr. Elissa Epel said in a statement.
"In our healthy sample, people who report being more engaged in their current activities tend to have longer telomeres. We don't yet know how generalizable or important this relationship is," she added.
In the wake of their findings, Dr. Epel, UCSF psychologist Dr. Eli Puterman, and their colleagues report that they plan to develop a series of classes that will "promote more mindful presence." Their goal is to see whether or not these classes can help protect telomeres, or even cause them to lengthen.
"The study is the first to link attentional state to telomere length and to control for stress and depression," the university said, noting that previous work has demonstrated a link between "telomere length and particular types of stress and depression."
However, Dr. Epel said that, since their new study, which appears in the November 15 edition of the journal Clinical Psychological Science, was largely based on a person's own evaluation of his or her focus levels and not on actual measurements, that additional research will be required.
"This study was a first step and suggests it's worth delving into understanding the link between mind wandering and cell health to get a better understanding of whether there is causality and reversibility," she said. "For example, does reducing mind wandering promote better cell health? Or are these relationships just reflective of some underlying long-standing characteristics of a person?"
"Results suggest the possibility that the attitude of acceptance of negative experiences might be one of the factors that promotes greater ability to be more present -- to be okay with one's current experience and not avoid the unpleasant aspects of everyday experiences," Epel added.