As adults reach middle and older age, they may start wondering what they can do to help prevent cognitive decline later in life. And while keeping busy learning new skills, staying physically fit, eating a healthy diet and engaging in stimulating activities have all been found to help protect the aging brain, new research reveals that mindfully unplugging may also offer significant cognitive benefits to older adults.
Neuroscientist and researcher Sara Lazar from Mass General and Harvard Medical School began looking deeper into the benefits of meditation when she started practicing yoga after sustaining a running injury. According to a recent Business Insider report, Lazar took up yoga to keep her muscles limber but found that the meditation aspect of the practice helped her handle daily conflicts or difficulties with greater calm and compassion. Her research led her to discover that regular meditation is also associated with lower rates of stress, depression and anxiety. Making time to meditate each day has also been linked with better sleep, a reduction in pain and a better quality of life.
In her first study Lazar discovered that people who had practiced mindful meditation for between 7 and 9 years had more gray matter in several areas of the brain and 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter in the frontal cortex as 25-year-old participants. The frontal cortex is associated with decision-making and working memory; most people over 50 will experience a shrinking of this part of the brain.
Further study found that meditation could not only help prevent loss of grey matter, it helped reduce the size of the amygdala, a part of the brain linked with aggression, fear and anxiety. In just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, study participants reported reduced stress levels and researchers noted positive changes in the brain that improved learning, memory and regulating emotion as well as resulting in an increased ability to feel empathy for others and look at situations from different perspectives.
Whether you can find 40 minutes a day or just five to meditate; to calm you breathing, let go of daily stresses and be fully present in the moment, the practice is sure to improve your sense of well being and may even help protect against cognitive decline in older age. Learn more about how to start a meditation practice today by following this link to the Mayo Clinic website.