By Janet Hennard, E-RYT500/C-IAYT ~
Here is a brain test for you. Which of these are true:
A — Our human brain starts decreasing in volume and weight in our mid-twenties.
B — With an aging population, instances of cognitive decline and dementia increase.
C — We are still learning about the effects of meditation on aging brains.
As you may have guessed, all are true.
But while statements A and B won’t make you jump for joy, here is some good news: During the last decade, increasing scientific evidence shows that meditation can slow, or even reverse, age-related brain decline.
Research from the UCLA School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology shows that long-term meditators have higher concentrations of tissue in the brain regions most diminished by aging.
Researchers found, on average, the brains of long-term meditators were 7.5 years younger at age 50 than the brains of non-meditators, and an additional one month and 22 days younger for every year after 50.
The meditators whose brains were younger in the UCLA study had an average of 20 years of experience in meditation. But don’t be discouraged.
Brain imaging of meditators has also shown increases in brain tissue even after practicing a few weeks or months.
Why are meditators’ brains different from those of non-meditators?
One hypothesis is that the concentration and focus required in meditation stimulates growth in neural structures. When we exercise a muscle, it grows larger with muscle mass. Similarly, when we exercise a part of the brain, it grows larger and denser with neural mass, or gray matter.
A second hypothesis is that the calming effects of meditation help protect the brain from the damage that would otherwise be caused by chronic stress — a common problem in the adult and aging population.
Stress triggers an inflammatory defense response. Inflammation is a natural response for healing and protects us from bacterial and viral infections, as well as harmful environmental stimuli. But prolonged inflammation, as with chronic stress, can be damaging to the brain. For example, studies have shown that prolonged stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, one area of the brain responsible for memory.
This Zen saying may help: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” That is a smart reminder that being too busy to attend to your well-being is stressful, in and of itself.
Regular meditation will likely help you to maintain a healthy brain. As a bonus, it does not cost anything and has no side effects. Even better, you can do it almost anywhere.
Meditation is a no-brainer.