When You Can’t Be Young, Think Young
The Takeaway First
Long-term meditation can help preserve your brain’s gray matter, reports an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry one month ago (Luders et al. 2015). Both meditators and non-meditators alike will experience atrophies in gray matter, but the study authors found that meditators lost significantly less gray matter from their twenties to their seventies. This provides strong evidence to suggest that meditation, like healthy eating and regular exercise, can help to protect us against some negative side effects of age.
- The study included 100 residents of the Los Angeles area, half of which were longtime meditators.
- The youngest participants were in their twenties, and the oldest were in their seventies.
- Gray matter was measured using MRI, and the resulting images were processed using computer software.
- Researchers observed a significant decline in total gray matter in both control and experimental groups (p < 0.001).
- In the meditating group, researchers observed significantly less loss of gray matter with increasing age (p = 0.003).
My Take on Meditation
As a general rule, I find that regular, moderate activity protects against most forms of degeneration. This is true of our muscles and bones, for instance. If we disengage our bodies for a long enough time, our muscles revert to fatty, cartilaginous tissue, our bones weaken, and our cardiovascular systems adapt to a lifestyle of little exertion by pruning unused mitochondria and capillaries. According to this new study, our brains respond to inactivity in much the same way.
Many people misunderstand the purpose of meditation and think that it’s a new age practice by which hippies and type-B personalities “find their center.” I believe it’s much more down-to-earth and accessible than that. There are many kinds of meditation, but the most popular kinds (or at least the ones I know of) involve sustained attention to the breath.
Inhalation and exhalation are two of our bodies’ most underappreciated functions. After all, breathing is what provides our blood with oxygen, a key ingredient in the chemical reactions that break down and build up organic compounds. Returning our thoughts to the sensations of this basic, animal function not only results in better insight to our inner lives and easy, free stress-relief, but it also acts as a form of exercise for the attention-centers in our brains. And, if you’re anything like me, you know that sustaining attention on any one thing can be a workout!
What should you do?
If you have never meditated before, I encourage you to try it out. Join one of the thousands of Facebook groups for meditators, and ask about the best ways to start. You may not like the word “meditation” as it may seem too cultish for you. Fine. Take 10 minutes a day to sit still, quietly and do nothing but breathe deeply or pray, if that’s what you are into. That’s it. Just 10 minutes a day.
If you do not have 10-minutes for this, everyday, then you need 1-hour.
Dr. Geo’s Easy First-Time Meditation Guide
- Find a quiet space away from your work and a comfortable place where you can sit in a relaxed position.
- Set a timer for ten-minutes, or as long as you would like to meditate. You might consider choosing a gentle alarm sound to avoid a startling end to your session. Your smart phone works just fine.
- Close your eyes and begin focusing on your breath. Breathe in through your nose (expand your belly, not your chest), and breathe out through your mouth, and do this in whatever way feels most natural. Typically a 4 count breath in, 4 count pause, then a 4 count breath-out practice works well.
- As you breathe, notice how the air feels when it moves through your body. You will no doubt notice countless other things as you breathe, such as unexpected thoughts or outside noises. It is normal and natural for your attention to be drawn to these things, so don’t be frustrated. But if you notice your attention leaving your breath, calmly bring it back and continue breathing.
- When your alarm goes off, open your eyes as slowly as you like, and let yourself feel when you are ready to continue your day. That’s all there is to it!
Welcome to successful aging folks.
Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): Potential Age-defying Effects of Long-term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551