Can meditation slow brain aging?

Meditation has already been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and improve sleep quality. While proof of the positive effects of meditation on brain aging is limited, a recent pilot study, conducted by INSERM researchers, promises to provide just this. The participants in this study included a famous Tibetan Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard. What if meditating could protect our brain from the effects of age?

In 2015, a study from the University of Los Angeles highlighted the benefits of meditative techniques on the functioning and even the structure of the brain, in subjects aged 24 to 77 years. Based on the observation that physiological changes related to aging can be accelerated by stress and poor sleep quality, the INSERM research team (Universities of Caen-Normandie and Lyon 1, France) wanted to explore the possibility that lifelong meditation practice could reduce these age-related brain changes, particularly in seniors.

For their study, the scientists studied six meditation experts (those having practiced 15,000 to 30,000 hours of meditation), averaging 65 years of age, using various medical examinations. In order to examine the anatomy of their brains, the subjects underwent an MRI, as well as a PET (positron emission tomography) scan to measure their metabolisms. Their brain function was compared to that of 67 controls of the same age who did not meditate. In order to measure the typical effects of aging on the brain, a group of 186 people aged 20 to 87 also participated in the study.

The results of the examinations were clear, since as described by Gaël Chételat: "the frontal cortex (control of emotions) and the cingulate cortex (decision-making, empathy, emotion), as well as the insular cortex (emotions) of meditation experts were larger and / or had a higher metabolism than control subjects of the same age." The authors noted that these findings are observable regardless of level of education or lifestyle. The correlations between functioning (and volume) of the regions of the brain mentioned above and cognitive performance are generally well-established, notably for attention and memory capacities. This means that meditating diligently could provide cognitive reserves and delay the effects of age on the brain. The study showed that a substructure of the hippocampus, Ammon's horn, was preserved. According to G. Chételat, this area also happens to be "the most susceptible to Alzheimer's disease".

As exciting as the results may seem, the research team wants to demonstrate the beneficial effects of meditation on a wider population. Known as the Silver Health Study, a study by INSERM has recruited 150 non-meditating volunteers over 65 years of age from the city of Caen (Normandy, France). For 18 months, one group will practice meditation, another English, and a final group will serve as a control. The results will be available in 2019.

In the meantime, be sure to meditate!
Source: Gaël Chételat, Florence Mézenge, Clémence Tomadesso, Brigitte Landeau, Eider Arenaza-Urquijo, Géraldine Rauchs, Claire André, Robin de Flores, Stéphanie Egret, Julie Gonneaud, Géraldine Poisnel, Anne Chocat, Anne Quillard, Béatrice Desgranges, Jean-Gérard Bloch, Matthieu Ricard, and Antoine Lutz, “Reduced age-associated brain changes in expert meditators: a multimodal neuroimaging pilot study”, in Scientific Reports, August 2017


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