“In its broadest and most universal definition, meditation is a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling”.
– The Australian Teachers of Meditation Association
Definitions of meditation vary from one individual practice to another, however the general idea is to train the mind to improve focus. Different forms of meditation focus on different aspects such as breath, an object, a mantra (repeated word or sound), a mental image or positive statements.
The effects of relaxation are an immediate result of practiced meditation and can provide a range of long-term benefits.
From a physical view, meditation lowers high blood pressure, reduces anxiety attacks, increases serotonin production which improves mood and behavior reduces stress-related pain (e.g. tension, headaches and insomnia, and increases immunity and energy).
Mentally, meditation decreases anxiety, improves emotional stability, provides clarity and peace of mind and sharpens the mind.
To add to the abundance of benefits meditation offers, research by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) now suggest that meditation could slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain.
During an individual’s mid-to-late 20s, the brain begins to decrease in weight and volume, by which stage it begins to lose some of its functional abilities. Through the following years, the risk for mental and neurodegenerative disease increases.
The study by UCLA shows that meditation can actually help lower these risks. It also suggests that meditation can preserve the brain’s gray matter, a neuron-containing tissue which functions to process information.
The study focused primarily on the association between age and the brain’s gray matter, comparing 50 people who meditated and 50 who had not, with both groups already showing signs of loss of grey matter as they aged.
Each group consisted of 28 men and 22 women, aged 24 to 77, with those who meditated for an average of 20 years. Using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists scanned the brains of the participants. Both groups of people naturally showed the degeneration in the gray matter (a loss of brain tissue with increasing age), but the large parts of gray matter in the brains of those who meditated were found to be better preserved.
While other factors, such as lifestyle choices, personality traits and genetic brain differences, need to be taken into consideration, the magnitude of the results was surprising even to the researchers.
“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating…Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
– Dr. Florian Kurth, co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center
Many people around the world are well aware of the cleansing and relaxation properties of meditation and most will make an excuse that it is too difficult or too time consuming. However if you think of it in terms of a few hours of your day in exchange for a better sleep at night and a healthier brain as you age, it might be time to reconsider.
To those who are already well-acquainted with the practice of meditation, this might provide encouragement for you to continue on with meditation into older age.
“Our results are promising…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.”
– Dr. Eileen Luders, first author and assistant professor of neurology, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA