Can meditating protect the brain from ageing?

Research suggests meditating regularly may help delay the cognitive effects of ageing in the brain.

How many of us reach midlife and assume that when we misplace keys, forget the milk, or someone’s name, it’s just part of the ageing process?

Scientists used to think that brain development peaked by early adulthood and then began to decline steadily, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Thanks to advances in brain imaging technology, researchers are discovering ways to optimise brain function throughout the life course.

Although its early days and results are mixed, one area of research is focusing on meditation.

Whilst there are many forms of meditation, they all have a common component, training the mind to pay attention.

Rather than emptying the mind, meditation focuses attention on a person’s present moment-to-moment experience in a non-judgemental way; it’s a skill of self-observation, where people notice their breath, thoughts, feelings or stimuli that come into awareness and let them pass.

By simply observing and not responding, practitioners become less reactive and caught up in the dramas their mind creates.

With practice, people begin to view thoughts and feelings as simply passing events and their perspective changes.

Repeated practice has been found to alter the brain structure and may explain improvements in memory, mood and stress levels reported by those who meditate.

When Harvard University researcher Sara Lazar compared brain scans of people meditating for years with non-meditators, she found several structural differences.

Seasoned meditators had a thicker grey matter in areas of the brain that process the information we take in through our senses. Parts of the brain cortex were also greater in volume in sites linked to decision-making and memory. The cortex is the brain’s outermost layer and contains nerve cells called grey matter.

It’s normal for the cortex to shrink with age; however, Lazar found meditators over 50 years of age had the same volume of grey matter as people aged 25 years.

If you’re thinking it takes a lot of practise before meditation alters brain structure, and may not be worth trying, read on!

In a small second study, Lazar found people new to meditation had increased volume of grey matter in areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, emotional regulation, perspective-taking, and self-referential processing – the ability to introspect about oneself – after just eight weeks of meditation practice.

The amygdala, the area in the brain responsible for the flight and fight response, also shrank in the meditation group, which may explain why they also reported feeling less stressed.

References.

Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B. T., Dusek, J. A., Benson, H., Rauch, S. L., Moore, C. I., & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893–1897. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19

Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

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