Forever young: Meditation might slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain

February 5, 2015, University of California, Los Angeles

Since 1970, life expectancy around the world has risen dramatically, with people living more than 10 years longer. That's the good news.

The bad news is that starting when people are in their mid-to-late-20s, the begins to wither—its volume and weight begin to decrease. As this occurs, the brain can begin to lose some of its functional abilities.

So although people might be living longer, the years they gain often come with increased risks for and neurodegenerative disease. Fortunately, a new study shows meditation could be one way to minimize those risks.

Building on their earlier work that suggested people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain's white matter, a new study by UCLA researchers found that meditation appeared to help preserve the brain's , the tissue that contains neurons.

The scientists looked specifically at the association between age and gray matter. They compared 50 people who had mediated for years and 50 who didn't. People in both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged. But the researchers found among those who meditated, the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it did among those who didn't.

The article appears in the current online edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, said the researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the difference.

"We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating," he said. "Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain."

As baby boomers have aged and the elderly population has grown, the incidence of cognitive decline and dementia has increased substantially as the brain ages.

"In that light, it seems essential that longer life expectancies do not come at the cost of a reduced quality of life," said Dr. Eileen Luders, first author and assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "While much research has focused on identifying factors that increase the risk of mental illness and neurodegenerative decline, relatively less attention has been turned to approaches aimed at enhancing cerebral health."

Each group in the study was made up of 28 men and 22 women ranging in age from 24 to 77. Those who meditated had been doing so for four to 46 years, with an average of 20 years.

The participants' brains were scanned using high-resolution . Although the researchers found a negative correlation between gray matter and age in both groups of people—suggesting a loss of brain tissue with increasing age—they also found that large parts of the gray matter in the brains of those who meditated seemed to be better preserved, Kurth said.

The researchers cautioned that they cannot draw a direct, causal connection between meditation and preserving gray matter in the brain. Too many other factors may come into play, including lifestyle choices, personality traits, and genetic brain differences.

"Still, our results are promising," Luders said. "Hopefully they will stimulate other studies exploring the potential of meditation to better preserve our aging brains and minds. Accumulating scientific evidence that has brain-altering capabilities might ultimately allow for an effective translation from research to practice, not only in the framework of healthy aging but also pathological aging."

Explore further: Is meditation the push-up for the brain?

Related Stories

Is meditation the push-up for the brain?

July 14, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Two years ago, researchers at UCLA found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. This suggested ...

In old age, lack of emotion and interest may signal your brain is shrinking

April 16, 2014
Older people who have apathy but not depression may have smaller brain volumes than those without apathy, according to a new study published in the April 16, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American ...

Evidence builds that meditation strengthens the brain, researchers say

March 14, 2012
Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.

Different mental disorders cause same brain-matter loss, study finds

February 4, 2015
In a study analyzing whole-brain images from nearly 16,000 people, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified a common pattern across a spectrum of psychiatric disorders that are widely perceived ...

Recommended for you

New technique helps uncover changes in ALS neurons

June 22, 2018
Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered that some neurons affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) display hypo-excitability, using a new method to measure electrical activity in cells, according to a study ...

Broken shuttle may interfere with learning in major brain disorders

June 22, 2018
Unable to carry signals based on sights and sounds to the genes that record memories, a broken shuttle protein may hinder learning in patients with intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism.

Watching stem cells repair spinal cord in real time

June 22, 2018
Monash University researchers have restored movement and regenerated nerves using stem cells in zebra fish where the spinal cord is severely damaged.

Scientists discover fundamental rule of brain plasticity

June 21, 2018
Our brains are famously flexible, or "plastic," because neurons can do new things by forging new or stronger connections with other neurons. But if some connections strengthen, neuroscientists have reasoned, neurons must ...

Scientists discover how brain signals travel to drive language performance

June 21, 2018
Effective verbal communication depends on one's ability to retrieve and select the appropriate words to convey an intended meaning. For many, this process is instinctive, but for someone who has suffered a stroke or another ...

Researchers find mechanism behind choosing alcohol over healthy rewards

June 21, 2018
A new study links molecular changes in the brain to behaviours that are central in addiction, such as choosing a drug over alternative rewards. The researchers have developed a method in which rats learn to get an alcohol ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.