Meditation has often been touted as a way to find inner peace and stillness. But what if meditating could reduce the effects of aging on your brain? According to research, taking a few minutes out of your day to meditate may improve cognitive function.
As meditation’s popularity has spread, so have studies of the practice. The results of 100 studies examining the cognitive effects of meditation all show evidence of improvements in psychological and cognitive functions. Some of the results are intuitive, such as how meditation helps us deal with stress. But other results are incontrovertible, such as scans showing that meditation causes structural changes in the brain.
For people facing age-related changes like memory loss, the results of these tests are especially relevant. The studies point to evidence that meditation can strengthen certain areas of the brain — the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala — that weaken as we age.
THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX
Your prefrontal cortex thins with age, which is associated with decreased cognitive function in your later years. However, meditation may reduce this age-related thinning. Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist specializing in the effects of yoga and meditation on cognitive and behavioral function, reports that long-time meditators don’t show a decline in the thickness of the prefrontal cortex.
Your hippocampus helps you process and form new memories, and it’s very sensitive to stress. In fact, research shows that your hippocampus will shrink in response to stressful situations
and chronic stress. The remedy? Meditation. Dr. Lazar’s study showed a positive correlation between meditation and a higher concentration of gray matter in the left hippocampus.
Often called the fear center of the brain, the amygdala is triggered by stressful situations. But unlike the hippocampus, which shrinks in response to stress, the amygdala has been shown to become denser.
In one study, people who attended mindfulness meditation classes showed a smaller stress response in brain scans compared to those who did not attend the classes. Meditation may help to decrease the density of the amygdala and therefore increase your ability to handle stress.
Of course, in addition to these benefits, there’s a good chance that five minutes of meditation each day will simply make you feel better. People who meditate report an increase in overall well-being. Why not give it a try?