It’s been proven that meditation can boost health and well-being by reducing stress, relieving insomnia, and lowering blood pressure, among other benefits. New research now reveals that meditation can also slow down the shrinking of our brain’s gray matter as we age.
“Less gray matter in some [brain] regions is associated with less cognitive functioning,” says Dr. Florian Kurth, a researcher at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center. Kurth and his colleagues analyzed the effects of meditation on aging brains and observed less shrinkage of gray matter in people who had meditated regularly for years, compared to those who had not. “What was kind of surprising was we found this effect throughout the whole brain,” says Kurth.
The good news is you don’t have to practice meditation for decades to enjoy its brain-boosting benefits. A Harvard research team at Massachusetts General Hospital was the first to document brain changes in people who were just beginning meditation practice. They observed that areas of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety, and fear decreased in size with regular practice—even in people who had only been meditating for eight weeks.
Britta Hölzel, a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany and first author of the paper reporting these findings, notes: “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and increase our well-being and quality of life.”
It’s never to late to start enjoying the emotional and physical benefits associated with meditation. Look for guided meditation classes in your community, or explore the many how-to books, CDs, DVDs and apps available. UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre offers free guided meditations and weekly podcasts on its website, www.marc.ucla.edu.