At first it might sound a bit ‘out there’ to say that being kind to people might affect how fast you age but hear me out.
It’s all about the feelings that you get from being kind.
1) kindness counteracts the effects of stress
It’s widely accepted that stress speeds up ageing. It’s widely accepted both in science and by the general public.
We’ve all heard stories of the person under extreme stress who visibly aged overnight. We’ve also seen the strain on the faces of people we know who are under a lot of stress. We’ve commented that such and such an experience aged them.
Kindness is physiologically opposite to stress. This is a topic I’ve written about in other blogs and in two of my books on kindness. It’s true in the sense that the experience of kindness – what it feels like – brings about opposite conditions in the body to the experience of stress, that is, what stress feels like.
As an example, stress hormones elevate blood pressure while kindness hormones reduce it. The latter are the biological products of the experience of kindness. The main one is oxytocin.
So logically, if stress speeds up ageing, it’s physiological opposite is going to have some sort of positive effects on ageing.
And this is true in several ways. To offer just one example, research shows that oxytocin actively reduces levels of inflammation and free radicals in skin cells. The latter are molecules that play a key role in ageing of the brain, blood vessels, and immune system.
In a nutshell, when we have plenty of this kindness hormone, our skin is healthier, the heart is healthier, the immune system is healthier, the brain is healthier, and we are less impacted by factors that cause ageing.
2) Kindness protects telomeres
Telomeres are end caps on DNA that help prevent it from unravelling, much as the plastic aglets on shoelaces protect these from unravelling. This is an oft-used analogy.
Telomeres typically wear shorter as we age. For this reason, telomere length is considered a measure of a person’s biological age or how fast they age over a period of time.
The University of Georgia led a 5-year programme that sought to increase the kindness, warmth, emotional and social support of over two hundred US high school youths (aged 17). They measured the youths’ telomeres at the beginning of the study and again 5 years later.
When compared with a similar sized group of youths who didn’t go through the programme who lost telomere length at an expected rate, the youths who went through the programme didn’t lose any telomere length at all.
The programme, which fostered more feelings of kindness, warmth and support, had protected the youths’ telomeres from the effects of life.
Kindness-based meditation practices also seem to have a protective effect on telomeres.
In a Harvard study centred at Massachusetts General Hospital, telomeres of 15 experienced practitioners of the Buddhists’ Loving Kindness meditation were compared with those of 22 non-meditators. The meditators had clocked up an average of 512 hours of practice over the previous four years.
The loving-kindness practice basically builds sentiments of warmth, kindness and compassion for self and others.
The practitioners were found to have much longer telomeres than the non-meditators and the effect was especially pronounced in female practitioners.
A question that naturally arises from these two studies is, “How?”
Research suggests it may have something to do with inflammation and the effect of kindness on it.
Inflammation plays a big role in ageing. It even goes by a special name among scientists who study ageing. They call it ‘inflammaging’, a word first invented by Claudio Franceschi while director of the Italian National Research Centre on Aging.
The human body has a natural and very powerful anti-inflammatory system, which brings me to a third way that kindness can slow ageing.
3) Kindness and compassion tone the vagus nerve and reduce inflammation
The Inflammatory Reflex is the name given to the process where the vagus nerve alleviates inflammation. It was first discovered by Kevin J. Tracy, a professor of neurosurgery and molecular medicine and one of the most cited scientists in the world.
It’s one of the body’s most important antiinflammatory and thus antiinflammaging processes.
So what does it have to do with kindness and compassion?
Well, numerous studies have now revealed a relationship between kindness and compassion and the activity, or tone, of the vagus nerve.
You can think of vagal tone a bit like muscle tone. Just as working out a muscle increases its tone and power, frequent increased activity of the vagus nerve increases its tone. And a higher vagal tone produces a better ability to alleviate inflammation.
Studies have shown that people who are compassionate and kind by nature tend to have higher vagal tone than average. And studies looking at it the other way find that people who have high vagal tone also tend to be more kind or compassionate on average. Whichever way you look at it, kindness, compassion, and high vagal tone go together.
And cultivating kindness and compassion can even increase vagal tone. That’s according to research that invited volunteers to practice the loving-kindness meditation daily. As their practice increased, so did their vagal tone.
And further research now shows that the practice also produces a better anti-inflammatory response.
So there you have it. The feelings generated by kindness counteract the effects of stress, protect telomeres, and tone the vagus nerve to help alleviate inflammation.
I’d just like to finish by saying that of course the point of being kind isn’t to obtain these anti-ageing benefits. The point is always because kindness is the right thing to do.
It’s just nice to know that the body is wired this way, as if Nature rewards us for helping each other.