Life expectancy has risen globally since 1970. We are living more than 10 years longer.
But when we are in our mid-to-late-20s, the brain starts to shrink. Brain volume and weight begin to decrease.
And as the brain withers, it can begin to lose some of its functional abilities.
But a new study by UCLA Brain Mapping Center researchers shows that meditation could be one way to minimize these increased risks for mental illness and neurodegenerative disease.
Extending earlier work that suggested people who meditate have a lesser amount of age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter, the new study found that meditation seemed to help preserve the brain’s gray matter, the tissue that contains neurons.
Meditation Effects on Gray Matter
Researchers investigated links 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 among those who meditated, the researchers found that the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it did among those who didn’t.
Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow, said the researchers were surprised by the extent of the difference.
We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating. Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain."
Incidence of cognitive decline and dementia, as the baby boomers have aged and the elderly population has grown, has increased substantially as the brain ages.
Dr. Eileen Luders, first author and assistant professor of neurology had this to say:
In that light, it seems essential that longer life expectancies do not come at the cost of a reduced quality of life. 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."
Meditators’ Brains Better Preserved
Groups in the study were composed of 28 men and 22 women ranging in age from 24 to 77.
Participants who meditated had been doing so for four to 46 years, with an average of 20 years. Their brains were scanned using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging.
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.
However, they also found that large parts of the gray matter in the brains of those who meditated seemed to be better preserved.
The researchers pointed out that they cannot draw a direct connection between meditation and preserved gray matter in the brain. There are too many other factors that could come into play, such as personality traits, lifestyle choices, 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 pathological aging."
Luders E, Cherbuin N and Kurth F (2015)
Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy.
Front. Psychol. 5:1551. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551
Luders E, Thompson PM and Kurth F (2015).
Larger Hippocampal Dimensions in Meditation Practitioners: Differential Effects in Women and Men.
Front. Psychol. 6:186. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00186