If you want to keep your brain young, you could do a lot worse than taking up meditation. That's if you believe the results of a new study in NeuroImage that's found experienced meditators have brains that appear 7.5 years younger, on average, than non-meditators.
The researchers used a computer programme that they created previously – it was trained on brain scans taken from hundreds of people to recognise what brains of different ages typically look like, in terms of amounts of grey matter, white matter, and cerebral spinal fluid. For the new study, the same programme analysed the brains of 50 experienced meditators (average age 51, with an average of 20 years meditation experience) and the brains of 50 healthy, non-meditators (also average age 51) and it produced a figure for each person saying how old their brain was in terms of its physical condition, as compared with the actual age of the person. Using this approach, the group of meditators had brains that were 7.5 years younger than the control group, on average.
Moreover, among the controls, the gap between their "brain age" and chronological age didn't vary with greater age, but among the meditators it did: it was the older meditators who had brains that seemed particularly well preserved, suggesting that meditation provides protection against the brain cell loss associated with aging.
Should you believe these findings? Prior research has shown that meditation appears to increase brain volume. But some issues to bear in mind include the fact that meditation might not preserve the brain, rather people with more age-resistant brains might be more likely to take up meditation. Similarly, we don't know if people who meditate do other healthy things that non-meditators don't do. Another caveat: this study just looked at the physical characteristics of the participants' brains, there was no test of their mental functioning. As a final aside, the researchers also noted that their female participants had more youthful brains than men – at age 50, they appeared three years younger, on average.
--Estimating brain age using high-resolution pattern recognition: Younger brains in long-term meditation practitioners
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!