Meditation has increased in popularity as more people discover its benefits. More than 20 million Americans practice some sort of meditation, usually as a way to reduce stress, improve concentration, and even develop a more positive mood and outlook.
Recent scientific study shows that meditation also has the potential to offset normal age-related cognitive decline and enhance cognitive function.
Meditation is a process of training your mind to focus on the present moment and redirect thoughts. The goal of meditation is to train yourself to practice mindfulness, including the ability to control where you focus your attention and awareness. Those who meditate also strive to achieve a calm and stable emotional state.
Meditation has been around for centuries, starting with ancient religious traditions. Some date the practice back to 5,000 BCE, according to Time. Most experts believe it started in India before spreading around the world.
“As it arrived in a new spot, it would slowly transform to fit each new culture,” the magazine reported. “But it wasn’t until the 20th century that it began to move beyond the realm of specific religions, especially in the West.”
Meditation’s Impact on Brain Functioning
Considering how meditation focuses on the mind, it’s surprising how little scientific research has been done on the impact of meditation on the mind. That’s changed in recent years. Two studies in recent years have reviewed important research literature on meditation and cognitive function.
The first, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, involved researchers from Massachusetts, Germany and The Netherlands. They reviewed the findings of 12 studies that investigated the impact of a variety of meditation techniques on brain function. These studies found meditation had preliminary positive effects on attention, executive function, memory, processing speed and general cognition.
While the 12 studies had small sample sizes, they show the potential for using meditation to combat cognitive decline. “We conclude that meditation interventions for older adults are feasible, and preliminary evidence suggests that meditation can offset age-related cognitive decline,” the researchers wrote.
A second study from the University of California – Los Angeles focused on reviewing recent research on the impact of meditation on brain function and structure. It reported that in searching for the biological mechanisms behind the benefits people experience with mediation, research has found meditation has the potential to alter neurotransmitters, brain activity and cognitive abilities.
“These findings not only imply a close link between meditation and brain structure, but also suggest possible modulating effects of meditation on age-related brain atrophy,” the UCLA study reported.
The Brain of a Meditation Master
Another study involved MRI scans over 18 years of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master. Conducted by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the research found that daily, intensive meditation slowed brain aging by as much as eight years when compared to a control group.
The science behind the results of these tests remains unclear. But a few studies have delved into this issue. For example, a study from the University of California – San Francisco found that the type of “in the moment” focus and awareness that meditation brings its users led to longer telomeres in the brain.
Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. Shorter telomeres are associated with the onset of cognitive issues.
Also, researchers at Harvard University in 2011 found that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of the brain. After just eight weeks of meditation, patients’ brains showed increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory and learning, according to Forbes. Interesting, the patients also had a decrease in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is associated with processing feelings of fear and anxiety.
How To Start Practicing Meditation
While scientists agree on the need for more study, the link between meditation and cognitive ability seems potentially strong. Combined with its already established health benefits, meditation offers older people a high-impact, low-cost way of improving their health.
The non-profit organization Mindful promotes meditation to attain better health, stronger relationships and a more compassionate society. They offer a basic meditation for beginners that you can do right away to get an idea of how meditation works.
- Prepare to sit still for a few minutes in a comfortable position. Simply focus on your own natural inhaling and exhaling of breath.
- Stay focused on your breath. Notice where you feel your breath most (like in your belly or nose). Try to keep your attention focused on your inhale and exhale.
- Follow your breath for two minutes. Take deep inhales and feel your belly expand, then exhale slowly, feeling your belly contract.
During this simple exercise, you are likely to notice one major thing: how busy your mind is and how quickly it wanders away from simply focusing on breathing. Mindful said thoughts associated with work, things you need to do today and things you believe you should have done yesterday will intrude without any conscious direction from you.
It’s those chattering thoughts that meditation can quell over time. Mindful offers more detailed advice on meditation for beginners on its site. Other sources for meditation information include a list of meditation apps compiled by Oprah Magazine. AARP also offers meditation tips geared toward older adults.