Meditation may give us more years with healthy brain
as we age
Incidence of cognitive decline and dementia has
increased substantially as elderly population has grown
9, 2015 - People are living longer and most of us take that as good
news. But in the world of reality, the news is not so good, if those
extra years of living are plagued with mental torment. New research of
adults up to age 77, however, has found that the practice of meditation
may give us more years in older age with less of the brain damage
associated with aging.
Since 1970, life expectancy around the world has
risen dramatically, with people living more than 10 years longer. But
starting when people are in their mid-to-late-20s, the brain begins to
wither — its volume and weight begin to decrease. As this occurs, the
brain can begin to lose some of its functional abilities.
So although people might be living longer, the
years they gain often come with increased risks for mental illness and
neurodegenerative disease. Fortunately, a new study shows meditation
could be one way to minimize those risks.
their earlier work that
suggested people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the
brain’s white matter, a new study by UCLA researchers found that
meditation appeared to help preserve the brain’s gray matter, the tissue
that contains neurons.
These scientists looked specifically at the
association between age and gray matter. They compared 50 people who had
mediated for years and 50 who didn’t. People in both groups showed a
loss of gray matter as they aged. But the researchers found among those
who meditated, the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it
did among those who didn’t.
The article appears in the current online edition
of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and
postdoctoral fellow at the
UCLA Brain Mapping Center,
said the researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the difference.
“We expected rather small and distinct effects
located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with
meditating,” he said. “Instead, what we actually observed was a
widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the
As baby boomers have aged and the elderly
population has grown, the incidence of cognitive decline and dementia
has increased substantially as the brain ages.
“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.”
Each group in the study was made up of 28 men and
22 women ranging in age from 24 to 77. Those who meditated had been
doing so for four to 46 years, with an average of 20 years.
The participants’ brains were scanned using
high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging. Although the researchers
found a negative correlation between gray matter and age in both groups
of people — suggesting a loss of brain tissue with increasing age — they
also found that large parts of the gray matter in the brains of those
who meditated seemed to be better preserved, Kurth said.
The researchers cautioned that they cannot draw a
direct, causal connection between meditation and preserving gray matter
in the brain. Too many other factors may come into play, including
lifestyle choices, personality traits, and genetic brain differences.
“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
The research was supported by the Brain Mapping
Medical Research Organization, the Robson Family and Northstar Fund, the
Brain Mapping Support Foundation, the Pierson‐Lovelace
Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation, the Tamkin Foundation, the William
M. and Linda R. Dietel Philanthropic Fund at the Northern Piedmont
Community Foundation, the Jennifer Jones‐Simon
Foundation, the Capital Group Companies Foundation and an Australian
Research Council fellowship (120100227). Nicolas Cherbuin of the
Australian National University was also an author of the study.
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