Studies of meditation have shown that its regular practice that helps individuals cope with issues such as anxiety, stress, chronic pain and high blood pressure. In addition, more recent studies facilitated by brain scan technology have found that regular meditation practice helps prevent or delay age related cognitive decline including memory loss. In fact, it appears that regular meditation practice can change the brain in a variety of profound and healthful ways.
If you spend any time with elderly people you know that cognitive decline is common. It is so common in fact, that we often make light of age associated memory loss referring it to “senior moments.” Brain researchers are now studying whether these declines are inevitable or whether they can be reversed. Many scientists now believe that the brain can change and even grow; that it responds to use much as our muscles respond to exercise. There are many examples of people who have recovered functions lost during stroke or other events.
Andrew Newberg, M.D., who specializes in the study of the brain and spirituality, reported on some of his meditation research in a recent book entitled How God Changes Your Brain. One of his studies was designed to determine if meditation could help slow or reverse certain age related declines in brain function including memory loss.
To conduct his study he taught non-meditators a technique that involved breath work, chanting, and repetition of simple hand movements called mudras in Eastern religious practice. He took baseline brain scans of his subjects and administered a test of cognitive skills. Study subjects were asked to practice this meditation technique twelve minutes a day for eight weeks, a relatively short period of time. This was followed by another brain scan and a new cognitive test. While the results varied, all subjects showed improvement in memory recall, concentration and verbal fluency. Overall improvement averaged between 10% and 20%. Brain scans confirmed that indeed changes occurred in the parts of the brain associated with these different functions.
Other research also supports the value of meditation in keeping brains young. For example, we know that ordinarily the gray matter in our brains thins as we age. However, brain scans show that meditation actually helps preserve and add to the thickness of the gray matter especially in areas of the brain associated with learning and motor skills. This suggests that a meditator’s brain may be healthier and more youthful than that of their non-meditating peers. Further, the growth of gray cells in the motor skills part of the brain may have implications for balance and movement, also problem areas for elderly people.
With all of these benefits, why don’t more people meditate? In a recent interview, Dr. Newberg suggested that it is because meditation requires a commitment of time and attention. He suggests that some forms of meditation such as mindfulness also require a facilitator. His advice to someone considering meditation is to evaluate your time and your lifestyle. Then select a form of meditation that fits so that you stick with it long enough to enjoy the benefits.
How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman. Random House Publishing Group, 2009.