by Aaron Kase
ON FEBRUARY 11, 2015
Do you listen to the silence within? While meditation keeps you living in the present moment, your practice can lead you toward a brighter future as well. Regular meditation can help your brain function better as you age, according to a new studyfrom UCLA.
Researchers found that people who meditate often lost less grey matter (the cells that allow your brain to process information) compared to people who didn’t. The study compared 50 meditators to 50 non-meditators, who ranged in age from 24 to 77. Scans taken with high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging showed the meditators’ grey matter was in better physical shape than their non-meditating counterparts.
The human brain starts to shrink when a person reaches their mid-to-late-20s and, over decades, can manifest itself in ways such as memory loss, disorientation, irritation and depression. While meditation doesn’t stop the brain’s deterioration entirely, it appears to slow it down.
The study builds on previous findings by UCLA that the brain’s white matter is more robust and declines at a reduced rate in meditators. White matter refers to nerve fibers that deal primarily with communication within the brain, while processing functions occur within the grey matter. The combined results suggest that daily meditation can help your brain maintain both its smarts and its speed as you get older.
The researchers were not anticipating such dramatic results.
“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” study co-author Florian Kurth said in a press release. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
The findings suggest that meditation could hold promise for combatting some of the perils of old age like loss of mental functions and dementia. That’s especially important because life expectancies around the world are already 10 years longer than they were in the 1970s, and could increase even more in the future. The elderly population is also growing as the Baby Boom generation hits retirement age and beyond.
“In that light, it seems essential that longer life expectancies do not come at the cost of a reduced quality of life,” said Dr. Eileen Luders, first author and assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “While much research has focused on identifying factors that increase the risk of mental illness and neurodegenerative decline, relatively less attention has been turned to approaches aimed at enhancing cerebral health.”
The study results show correlation, not causation, between meditation and brain condition, so it’s too soon to draw any firm conclusions. It could be that meditators also make other life choices that preserve their grey matter, or perhaps brain durability actually preconditions people to take to meditation.
“Still, our results are promising,” Luders said. “Hopefully they will stimulate other studies exploring the potential of meditation to better preserve our aging brains and minds. Accumulating scientific evidence that meditation has brain-altering capabilities might ultimately allow for an effective translation from research to practice, not only in the framework of healthy aging but also pathological aging.”
It will be up to future trials to determine if meditation can make a real impact against scourges of the elderly like Alzheimer’s disease and help people live happier, healthier lives.
The study concludes:
“Altogether, our findings seem to add further support to the hypothesis that meditation is brain-protective and associated with a reduced age-related tissue decline.”
The UCLA research isn’t the only good news for dedicated meditators. Forbes recentlyrounded up a survey of other recent studies on meditation that provide more evidence of the beneficial effects of a daily mindfulness practice. They included research from Yale, which found that people who meditate are less likely to let their mind wander idly toward worry and unhappiness. Those people are also better at reclaiming their grip on the present moment when their thoughts do go astray. Forbes also described a Johns Hopkins study, which reported that meditation had a similar effect as pharmaceutical antidepressants on reducing depression and anxiety. And, Forbesreported on Harvard researchers who discovered that meditation practice can physically grow the learning and memory areas of the brain while shrinking the parts that cause fear, anxiety and stress.
Research has also suggested that mindfulness can help improve concentration, fight addiction and improve outcomes for children in school. The meditators in the UCLA study practiced for an average of 20 years, but some reports show that daily meditation can begin to show benefits in as little as a few weeks. Even just minutes a day of practice can make an impact. If you want to combat anxiety and depression, increase your happiness and even improve your brain function into your elder years, meditation could be your ticket to inner tranquility and healthy grey matter.