The Many Benefits of Meditation

The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits.  These include:

  • Meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts.
  • Meditation is a powerful tool for reducing depression
  • Meditation can increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and decrease brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.
  • Meditation can improve concentration, attention and cognitive skills on the job.
  • Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, can reduce anxiety and help people with social anxiety disorder.
  • Meditation can help in the recovery process for many types of addiction.

Does Meditation Slow Brain Aging?

But, most intriguing of all, meditation may help mitigate the effects of aging on the brain.  While overall life expectancy has been increasing, the human brain still begins deteriorating after the first two decades of life and continues degrading further with increasing age. A study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain—although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

telomere shortening

Another study, conducted at the University of California, Davis, took things a step further.  It showed that meditation promotes positive psychological changes, and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various psychological measures had the highest levels of telomerase.  Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that tend to get shorter every time a cell divides. When telomeres drop below a critical length, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies. Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres. Other studies suggest that telomerase activity may be a link between psychological stress and physical health.

According to Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, “The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and therefore a person’s health and longevity. Rather, meditation may improve a person’s psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person’s sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology.”

The Scientific Power of Meditation

Mindful Living, Long Life

A number of studies also have helped researchers learn how meditation might work and how it affects the brain. Research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses (such as influenza).  Through the positive psychological states it creates, meditation may help extend the length and quality of our lives.

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