Want a sharper mind in old age? Time to embrace meditation

Yes, yet another reason to sit in stillness, says a new study.

Yes, yet another reason to sit in stillness, says a new study

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Whether you've tried it or are only thinking about it, reaching a state of mindfulness through meditation can be challenging. With the hectic pace of our lives, it's difficult to cancel out the noise, embrace the silence and actually slow down for even a minute let alone 30. For those of you who have tried and stopped, or are too daunted to begin, the evidence is mounting that you should try and try again. A new long-term study suggests that instilling meditative practice can preserve and improve the sharpness of your mind well into old age.

The study, published in the Journal Of Cognitive Enhancement, examined the lasting effects in meditators (both occasional and regular) over time. It was a follow up to an initial study by the same researchers in 2011, in which two groups of 30 participants attended intensive meditation retreats at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. The daily meditation practices focused on calming, and focusing on a singular point of attention, like an object or a concept like "compassion". When the respective retreats were finished, participants were asked to resume their lives as normal, and were followed up with after six months, 18 months and seven years. All participants reported to have continued meditation practice since attending the retreat, averaging one hour-per-day of practice for the past seven years. After cognitive testing, the participants who meditated more in the past seven years retained more of the mental boost they received from the initial meditation. This was especially true for older participants, who showed far less age-related mental decline than their ages would anticipate — with noticeably better than normal attention and response ability.

Though the researchers admit lifestyle can play a huge factor in determine a person's cognition and that further research is needed to make more concrete conclusions, they believe these findings strongly suggest the short term and long term effects of meditation. Next areas of study could focus on pinpointing the duration, method and intensity of meditation needed to achieve the desired benefits.

This is yet another addition to the mounting benefits that studies are uncovering about meditation, in a variety of aspects. On the physical level, a Kent State University study discovered that meditation can actually lower high blood pressure at a rate only slightly less effective than blood pressure medication. Even more impressive, a 2015 study found that meditation can positively affect the cells of breast cancer survivors. While the specifics of the meditative mind/body connection are still being investigated, Harvard researchers have observed that regular meditation (30 minutes every day for eight weeks) can actually change the brain structure by rebuilding and strengthening grey matter in areas of the brain corresponding with memory, learning and concepts like compassion and introspection — so it's not hard to see how the practice can strengthen long-term attention and fight against the perils of an aging brain.

However, recent analysis of older research has suggested that not all meditation studies are as promising as they claim. A February study from Coventry University conducted a meta-analysis of data from 22 previous studies on meditation. In it, they found holes in the claims that meditation was noticeably effective in lowering aggression and prejudice while making an individual more socially connected. In the area on meditation raising one's level of compassion, they found that this claim was the highest when the meditation teacher was also the author of the study. But before this makes you decry the meditation movement all together, keep in mind this doesn't debunk the positives of meditation altogether, nor does it imply that meditation is bad for you, just that it is not the be-all-end-all method to a better life, but more realistically a part of an improved lifestyle.

There are plenty of reasons to meditate, whether to clear the mind, de-stress or simply take a moment to unplug from the effects of our hectic, white-noise lives. And if you're still reserved in the notion that meditation need be paired with a Buddhist spirituality, consider that meditation is practiced by those in different religious or with no religious attachment at all, leading a Christian monk to herald it as a "necessity, not a luxury", and with supporters and practitioners from all walks of life remarking on the results.

No matter what your reason or what you get out of it, there are plenty simple, practical ways to approach meditative practice to make a welcome addition to your improved lifestyle regime.