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  • Kristen Johnson

Meditation: Anti-Aging for the Brain?



How often do you sit and do nothing? With technology at our fingertips, dull moments are few and far between. However, slowing down and practicing awareness is becoming more and more popular with the mindfulness movement. Is it worth giving meditation a shot?


Science says yes! But before we get into the research, what are meditation and mindfulness in the first place?


Mindfulness is the ability to be present and engaged in what you are doing at the moment. You can practice mindfulness during a meditation, as well as throughout your day. Being mindful is simply living in the present moment. Practicing meditation can make being mindful on a daily basis become second nature.


There are hundreds of different types of meditation, but they all have the common goal of bringing awareness to the body and the present moment. Techniques are often categorized as either calming meditation, or insight meditation.


Calming meditation aims to place the mind in a calm state and improve focus. It involves placing attention on a specific object such as the breath, a mantra, or a physical object, and when the mind wanders (as it always does), you simply bring your attention back to the focus object.


Insight meditation is similar but adds an additional layer of attempting to gain insight into the mind and physical sensations. You focus on your breath or a physical sensation such as the belly rising and falling with each breath, but this time you note what thoughts distract you, what sensations the body feels, what sounds you hear, before returning your focus to the breath. Insight meditation offers you just that – insight into your thought processes.


To put it simply, I like to think of meditation as exercise for your brain.


Just like physical exercise, meditation also comes with an array of health benefits. Not only has it been seen to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, but it can actually improve your ability to cope with stress. Meditation provides you with psychological resilience so that you can recover faster from stressful events. This is because meditation teaches you to let thoughts come and go without judgment, so you are less likely to ruminate on negative thoughts or events. Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter concentration (neurons) in brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, and perspective taking. You will have more control over your emotions, and an increased ability to see things from another’s point of view – all of which can help reduce your stress response.


Not only can you see these outcomes, you can actively alter neural connections in your brain with meditation. Research by Sara Lazar found that people who practiced insight meditation had thicker brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing. The prefrontal cortex of the brain (the part just behind the forehead) is essential in higher order thought processing, logic, and decision making. This part of the brain showed a significant increase in growth in meditators compared to non-meditators, and the findings showed the biggest differences in older participants.


As we get older, the cortex of our brain tends to thin, which may contribute to decreased processing speeds and cognition. These results show us that meditation may offset these age-related changes, and keep aging brains from thinning. Thicker cortices are indicative of increased neuronal function, so meditation is actually making your brain thicker and more efficient, just like physical exercise does for your muscles!


Practicing meditation can slow the rate of neural degeneration in your brain (aka aging), so much so that the 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same cortical thickness as the 20-30-year-old non-meditators. Talk about anti-aging for the brain!


With all these benefits of meditation, how come more people aren’t practicing it? Because it can be challenging and hard to stick with, but it doesn’t have to be. Next week I will provide some quick steps for getting started with meditation, and some tips to keep it as part of your daily routine. But I will let you in on the first secret now: you can’t do it wrong!


Interested in getting started with meditation? Check back next Wednesday for some helpful tips!



References

1. Headspace. (2019). What is meditation? Retrieved from https://www.headspace.com/meditation-101/what-is-meditation

2. Headspace. (2019). 16 different types of meditation. Retrieved from https://www.headspace.com/meditation/techniques

3. Hoge, E. A., Bui, E., Marques, L., Metcalf, C. A., Morris, L. K., Robinaugh, D. J., … Simon, N. M. (2013). Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. The Journal of clinical psychiatry74(8), 786–792. doi:10.4088/JCP.12m08083

4. Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research191(1), 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

5. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport16(17), 1893–1897. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19

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