Loss of gray matter in the brain is a natural side effect of human aging, but are there ways to slow down this process? According to new research out of UCLA, long-term meditation may stall age-related brain atrophy.
In a recent study, researchers observed 50 people who had meditated for years. When compared to 50 other participants who didn’t meditate, the ones who did showed a less severe decline in gray matter.
“We were really surprised that we found widespread regions throughout the entire brain where we saw that gray matter was better preserved over time in the long-term meditator group compared to the control group,” says Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center. “This was really surprising and amazing.”
For the study, the age of the participants ranged from 24 to 77. It should be noted that the meditators who did take part in the study weren’t newbies. In fact, they had been practicing meditation anywhere from four to 46 years. (On the whole, the average was 20 years.)
When researchers examined the brain scans of those who meditated, they did find a decline in gray matter. However, they also noticed that meditators showed an overall better preservation of gray matter in the brain. According to Kurth, the finding is “promising.”
“The main implication would be that this warrants further research,” he says, clarifying that the study is unable to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Even so, it certainly begs the question: Does meditation help slow down age-related atrophy in the brain? Kurth says more research is needed to answer that question.
“We know that stress can be bad for the brain, and we know that meditation can alleviate stress,” says Kurth. “One reason for the effects we saw might be that lower stress levels in the long-term meditators over a long time resulted in better preservation of gray matter. We cannot prove this, but this may be an explanation.”