Recent research suggests that the brain remains younger in meditators with regular practice. Other studies indicate similar impacts on the genes and the cells.
By Svend Davanger
“Of all aspects of aging, none seems more crucial to human quality of life than the preservation or decline of mental functioning.” Joseph Loizzo, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. (Loizzo, 2009)
There is currently optimism among scientists regarding the possibilities to use meditation and other stress-management techniques, improved learning, and quality of life to enhance mental functioning among the elderly. There is also an increasing realization that aging is not only genetically determined but may also be modified by environmental conditions, including non-pharmacological interventions such as meditation. Among a total of 135 scientific studies of aging and meditation, 21 have been published during the past 12 months (PubMed 04.10.2017). The majority of these focus on the potential to counteract aging processes in the brain through meditation.
One of the most remarkable studies so far was published in 2016 in the journal NeuroImage (Luders, Cherubin et al., 2016). The project was led by Eileen Luders, who is affiliated with The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She has published several studies with data from brain scans (MR) of 50 meditators in the Los Angeles area. In these studies, several meditation techniques were represented, such as zen, vipassana, raja yoga meditation, and Tibetan meditation. The subjects had practiced regular meditation, most of them daily, from four to 46 years, with a mean of 19.8 years. The age of the participants varied from 24 to 71 years, with a mean of 51.4 years. They were matched with a control group of equal size with people of matching age, person to person, who did not practice any type of meditation. After using this material for several other publications, Luders had the ingenious idea to analyze the scans to determine the effect of meditation on the aging of the brain.
The research team fed the brain scans into a computer with an algorithm program that analyzed volume-based characteristics of the brain that varied with age. The analyses resulted in a scale they named the BrainAGE index, i.e. the age the brain seems to have, according to the scan. In the control group, the chronological age and calculated BrainAGE corresponded well. But there was a difference for the meditating brains. Luders and coworkers found that, at the age of 50, the “brain age” was 7.5 years younger than the brains of the control group, i.e., meditators at age of 50 had brains that resembled those of 42.5-year-old persons. The researchers further investigated whether this difference would change with increasing age. They found that for every year that was added to 50 in the meditation group, the brain age became an additional 1 month and 22 days younger than the chronological age. In the control group, the chronological age corresponded with the brain age for all ages. A 60-year-old in the meditation group had the brain age of a 51-year-old in the control group. According to the researchers, these findings suggest that regular meditation practice helps to keep the brain in a better condition than would otherwise be the case, with increasing age. A possible interpretation may be that the neurons and synapses of the brain are activated in a stimulating way during meditation.
A recent study (Chaix, Alvarez-Lopez et al., 2017), based on collaboration between several French and American universities, compared 18 meditators with 20 non-meditators. The meditators practiced meditation at least 30 minutes per day, had at least ten years of experience, and had participated in at least three meditation retreats. In this study, the researchers used a simple blood test, rather than examining the brains of the participants. They investigated the degree of aging of the genes by measuring DNA methylation levels. It has previously been found that DNA methylation increases with age, and that this is associated with higher risk of diseases, including cognitive impairments. In this study, the researchers found that the meditators were protected against this epigenetic aging effect, whereas the methylation, as expected, increased with age in the control group. According to the researchers, regular meditation over several years may be a useful method to reduce the effect of aging on the body’s cells, and thereby reduce age-related diseases.
Every cell in our body contains copies of our genes, organised in chromosomes. These genes are also exposed to aging, in a number of ways. Even here meditation seems to have an effect. We have known for several years that stress speeds up the aging process of the cells, because it leads to the erosion of the telomeres. Telomeres are protein caps that protect the ends of the chromosomes. Their discovery resulted in a Nobel Prize in 2009, to Elisabeth Blackburn at the University of California at San Francisco, and others. The shorter the telomeres, the higher the risk of various diseases and death. The telomeres are worn with age, and the more stress accumulates in life, the faster the telomeres are shortened (Epel, Blackburn et al., 2004). In 2009 the same team of scientists found that meditation has a counteracting effect on the shortening of the telomeres and the aging of the cells (Epel, Daubenmier et al., 2009). A new twist to this line of research appeared in 2016, when a Spanish team of scientists found that one aspect of the meditation practice was particularly important for the protective effect on the telomeres and the aging of the cells: that the meditators accepted their mind wandering and did not try to avoid spontaneously occurring negative emotions and thoughts (Alda, Puebla-Guedea et al., 2016). This corresponds well with the practice of Acem Meditation and its stress-reducing effects. Acem Meditation emphasizes the acceptance of emotions and thoughts, without exclusion or attempts at actively modifying them.
That brain functions deteriorate in old age is part of a normal development. For some of us they do so even more than normally; this is called mild cognitive impairment. This is not yet considered to be dementia, though it may eventually develop into dementia. Many researchers are searching for non-pharmacological interventions that can slow down this type of impairment, in order to prevent it from developing into dementia, or possibly even reverse the process or restore some of the lost functions. One of the non-pharmacological interventions that seem to have an effect is physical exercise. In addition, many articles emphasize that meditation is among those interventions that may meet such expectations, because it enhances attention and other cognitive functions (Dresler, Sandberg et al., 2013). This is currently an active field of research, which will be followed with great interest in the future, although no large, ground-breaking studies have yet been published.
Alda, M., M. Puebla-Guedea, B. Rodero, M. Demarzo, J. Montero-Marin, M. Roca and J. Garcia-Campayo (2016). “Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion.” Mindfulness (N Y) 7: 651-659.
Chaix, R., M. J. Alvarez-Lopez, M. Fagny, L. Lemee, B. Regnault, R. J. Davidson, A. Lutz and P. Kaliman (2017). “Epigenetic clock analysis in long-term meditators.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 85: 210-214.
Dresler, M., A. Sandberg, K. Ohla, C. Bublitz, C. Trenado, A. Mroczko-Wasowicz, S. Kuhn and D. Repantis (2013). “Non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement.” Neuropharmacology 64: 529-543.
Epel, E., J. Daubenmier, J. T. Moskowitz, S. Folkman and E. Blackburn (2009). “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 1172: 34-53.
Epel, E. S., E. H. Blackburn, J. Lin, F. S. Dhabhar, N. E. Adler, J. D. Morrow and R. M. Cawthon (2004). “Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 101(49): 17312-17315.
Loizzo, J. (2009). “Optimizing learning and quality of life throughout the lifespan: a global framework for research and application.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 1172: 186-198.
Luders, E., N. Cherbuin and C. Gaser (2016). “Estimating brain age using high-resolution pattern recognition: Younger brains in long-term meditation practitioners.” Neuroimage 134: 508-513.
Language editor: Ann Kunish