As the U.S. population grows older, brain aging will become a greater concern. An aging brain increases the risk of age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.
However, cognitive decline does not have to be an inevitable part of growing older. Now research reports meditation may help prevent brain aging and improve brain function.
Meditation Positively Changes Brain Structure
A 2005 breakthrough study published in Neuroreport found meditation increased the thickness of the brain's prefrontal cortex. Normally, as the brain ages the cortex thins and the brain shrinks. The prefrontal cortex is associated with attention, higher thought and planning.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston took MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans of 20 experienced meditators and 15 non-meditators. During scanning the meditators did insight meditation while the non-meditators thought about whatever they wanted.
The meditators practiced insight meditation for about six hours weekly for an average of nine years. Insight meditation cultivates mindfulness -- an awareness of the present moment.
The researchers found that meditators had thicker right anterior insula and prefrontal cortex brain regions than nonmeditators of the same age. Furthermore, older meditators had more pronounced thickness in the brain's outer layer or cortex. This suggests that meditation practice may decrease age-related thinning of the brain.
"Our initial results suggest that meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing," the study authors conclude. "The data further suggest that meditation may impact age-related declines in cortical structure."
Meditation Strengthens Entire Brain
In 2011, UCLA researchers reported meditators have stronger connections throughout the entire brain and less brain shrinkage.
In 2012, the same UCLA team found meditators have larger amounts of cerebral cortex folding called gyrification. Increased folding is associated with faster brain processing and memory formation.
Researchers at UCLA analyzed MRI brain scans of 50 experienced meditators and 50 non-meditators. The meditators practiced various meditation types including Vipassana and Zen for an average of 20 years.
The researchers found that meditators had increased gyrification across the cortex including the left and right anterior dorsal insula, compared to the nonmeditators. There was a direct correlation between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years.
"Moreover, given that meditators are masters in introspection, awareness, and emotional control, increased insular gyrification may reflect an integration of autonomic, affective, and cognitive processes," the study authors write.
To learn more about meditation benefits, download a free sample from Elaine Gavalas' book, "The Yoga Minibook Series Balance Set: The Yoga Minibook for Stress Relief and The Yoga Minibook for Energy and Strength."
Elaine Gavalas is co-founder of SimplyCentered.com and an exercise physiologist, nutritionist, yoga therapist, weight management specialist, and healthy recipe developer.
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