Forever Young(er): Potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy

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

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

Therefore, although people might be living longer, the years they gain often come with increased risks for mental illness 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, in this new study by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers found that meditation appeared to help preserve the brain’s neuron-containing gray matter.

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

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.”

Areas where correlations between local gray matter and age are significantly different between meditators and controls.

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