It may seem improbable, but a growing body of evidence suggests that regular meditation can indeed slow ageing, at least at a cellular level. Anne-Marie Evans tells us how….
The Scientific case for taking up meditation to rejuvenate and preserve your brain
“Attention can be trained in a way that is not that different to how physical exercise changes the body” Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry
It is a fact that people are living longer. Improvements in healthcare and an awareness of the importance of good diet and exercise for preserving physical health has led to increased longevity. Life expectancy in people around the world is, on average, ten years longer than it was in the 1970’s. The increased human life span is a positive development; definitely, a reason to be cheerful. But, when it comes to our mental health, there can be a down side to living longer.
As the brain ages, it shrinks in volume and weight, resulting in a significant loss of grey matter. Grey matter is the area of the brain that contains neurons. It is this shrinking of grey matter that causes brain malfunction in old age – memory loss, slower cognitive processing, and a reduced capacity for executive decision making. Reduction in grey matter may also bring the risk of degenerative brain diseases. It is a sad fact that neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and mental illness are on the rise.
The importance of diet and exercise to maintain optimal physical health is a given. Forty years ago, gym workouts were mainly the domain of athletes and military types; today it seems that almost everyone’s a gym buff. But what is the value of a youthful body if you are starting to lose your mental faculties?
The good news is that studies from the field of neuroscience show that regular meditation plays an important role in preserving the health of our brains and may even possibly prevent degenerative brain diseases in old age.
With the advent of MRI brain scanning technology, we now know that our brains start shrinking as early as our mid-twenties. However, we also know that, contrary to previous thinking, the brain has the potential to regenerate long into old age. One of the greatest discoveries of recent times is that our brains are malleable, like plastic. When we learn a tricky new skill – juggling or learning to play a new musical instrument – our brains generate new neural networks (grey matter). This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity and experiments have shown that the brain retains its capacity for change not only in response to challenging new external experiences but also to internally generated mind states such as thinking, the workings of imagination and attention training exercises like meditation. This was discovered when neuroscientists from Harvard University conducted a pioneering experiment…one group of volunteers practiced a piano exercise every day for three months, while a second group simply imagined practising the exercise. The brains of both groups were scanned afterwards. As expected, changes had occurred in the motor cortex area of the brain that controls finger movements of the group who had physically practiced the piece and, interestingly, the motor cortex of the virtual players showed the exact same physical changes!
The implications of this are very exciting! Meditation can literally rewire and rejuvenate our brains. Several studies have validated this claim. In 2005 a Harvard neuroscientist called Sarah Lazar experimented on a group of long term meditators. She scanned their brains and compared their scans to a demographically matched control group. What was discovered was that the meditator group showed more grey matter (neuronal networks) than the non-meditator control group. What is even more interesting though is that the pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with memory and executive decision making – was more developed in the older meditators (50-year olds) compared to the 25-year-old non-meditator controls. The neo cortex is the area of the brain that shrinks with age resulting in impaired memory function and ability to organise thoughts; a factor in degenerative brain diseases and dementia. The results of this experiment seem to suggest that meditation slows down or prevents shrinkage of this key brain region.
It is possible though, as some critics of Lazar’s experiment suggested, that meditation was not the reason the participants of the study had such well-developed neo cortexes – lifestyle habits may have been a factor or they may just happened to have been born with brains that were structured that way. So, Lazar carried out another experiment. This time, two groups who had never meditated before were scanned before and after an 8-week Meditation programme. The results of this experiment showed significant regeneration of grey matter in the participants’ brains; in the neo cortex and left hippocampus (the areas responsible for memory and learning among respectively). Furthermore, tests carried out on participants before and after the meditation sessions showed enhanced creativity and better performances in memory tests.
Another more recent study was conducted at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to see whether long term meditation practice kept the brain younger longer. This study included 50 meditation practitioners (28 men, 22 women) and 50 control subjects (28 men, 22 women). The brain scans of each group were compared to establish the amount of brain degeneration in each group. The results of the study showed that areas of the brain that had shrunk with age were much fewer and less widespread in people who meditate, than in people who don’t meditate.
Thus, if you want to stay younger longer, it is clear from these studies that just as exercise to prevent the degeneration and atrophying of muscles is key to a longer life and more youthful appearance, so too is meditation key to preserving our mental faculties long into old age.
But it is important to note that meditation should be practised not only as the means to improve physical and mental health, but as a way of bringing physical mental and spiritual energies into balance. As a matter of course, regular meditation will foster spiritual growth and bring a sense of peace and increased love for oneself and others and has the potential to effect permanent personal transformation.
Anne-Marie is a meditation teacher with an accredited teaching diploma from the British School of Meditation in the UK. She has a specialist interest in and wide knowledge of eastern and western philosophical and mystical traditions. As a passionate practitioner and advocate of meditation, she believes the benefits of meditation and mindfulness should be shouted from the rooftops! To this end she co-founded a not-for-profit meditation group in Dubai in 2015, offering group practice and talks on the science and benefits of meditation and other spiritual practices.
A resident of Dubai for almost 20 years, Anne-Marie is originally from Scotland.