Meditation is normally accredited with keeping the brain young and some say knocks off seven years of brain decline. Researchers have found that the combination of intense concentration and relaxation may trigger the growth of new brain cells. Although they did not look at whether the meditation was also smarter, brain shrinkage can lead to Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
The scientists scanned the brains of 50 American men and women who regularly meditated and 50 non-meditators. Scans were fed into a computer programme that analysed the images and provided an age for each brain based on its physical condition. The results were striking. In general, the non-meditators’ brain ages and actual ages were the same. But the meditators brains were younger than their years, with the average 50 year old having a brain that belonged in a 42 or 43 year-old body. The benefits were particularly greater for older meditators.
For every year over the age of fifty, a youth spent meditating knocked an extra year off brain age, the Journal Neuroimage reports. Researcher Christian Gaser, a neuroscientist at Jena University Hospital in Germany, said: ‘These findings seem to suggest that meditation is beneficial for brain preservation with a slower rate of brain ageing throughout life.’
Dr Gaser, who collaborated with US and Australian scientists, said it is not clear how meditation protects the brain but that it’s possible that ‘intense mental processes’ trigger the growth of new cells and connections. The chemicals behind the feel-good sensations produced by meditation may also provide a boost. However, he cautioned that those who meditate may lead healthier lifestyles in general.
It is also possible that some inherent difference in brain structure make some people more likely to take up meditating. Those studied had practiced various types of traditional meditation for an average of twenty years. Some did seven sessions a week or had more than 40 years’ experience under their belt.
It isn’t clear from the results if shorter bursts are also beneficial and if mindfulness, the ‘meditation lite’ that is becoming increasingly popular, is having the same effect. Interestingly the scan reveals that meditation ‘isn’t the only way you keep the mind youthful,’ being female also helps. The women’s brains were on average three years younger than the men’s, whether they meditated or not.
Meditation is credited with improving health in numerous ways, from boosting the immune system to easing loneliness. Some scientists say it can be linked to unpleasant side effects. One study from the University of California found that 63% of people who had been on meditation retreats suffered from at least one side effect, ranging from confusion or panic and depression. Other research had flagged up twitches and fits as possible effects.
All I can deduce from the whole scientific exercise is that it shows that often sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander.