Since 1970, life expectancy around the world has risen dramatically, with people living more than 10 years longer. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that 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. But a new study by UCLA researchers suggests that meditation could be one way to minimize those risks.
The new research builds on earlier work by the same team, which demonstrated that people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter — the material that makes up nearly half of the brain and is composed of nerve fibers that the brain uses to communicate.
In this study, the researchers looked at the association between meditation and the preservation of gray matter — the brain tissue where cognition occurs and memories are stored. Using high-resolution MRI, the team examined the brains of 100 participants: 50 people who had been meditating for an average of 20 years and 50 non-meditators. Both groups were made up of 28 men and 22 women between the ages of 24 and 77.
Meditation associated with less gray matter-loss
As expected, people in both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged. But the researchers found that among those who meditated, the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it did among those who didn’t. It seemed that gray matter, in those who meditated, was better preserved. What’s more, the difference in gray matter loss between meditators and non-meditators was observed across numerous brain regions — a finding that surprised even the researchers themselves.
“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center.“Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
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. Worldwide, nearly 36 million people live with dementia, but that number is projected to double by 2030 (65.7 million) and more than triple in 2050 (115.4 million). With the growing global burden of dementia, understanding how to protect the brain from its effects could have a profound impact on millions of people, the researchers said.
“While much research has focused on identifying factors that increase the risk of neurodegenerative decline, relatively less attention has been turned to approaches aimed at enhancing cerebral health,” said Dr. Eileen Luders, first author and assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The authors caution 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,” Dr. 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.”