What is the impact of meditation on aging of the brain ?

By Matthieu Ricard on September 08, 2021

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Can we act upon aging of the brain and fight against cognitive decline the same way we can act upon aging on the body itself ? Over the last decades, scientific studies have looked into the consequences of mind-training practices – meditation – on both body and spirit.

Thanks to a number of studies, we know that the practice of meditation has an immediate impact on cerebral activity and, in the long term, on the very structure of the brain. We have the ability to transform ourselves on our own thanks to neuroplasticity - the mechanisms by which the brain can modify itself. This occurs through neurogenesis processes, from the embryo stage or during training, and manifests itself by the brain's ability to create, undo or reorganize neural networks and their connections. Neuroplasticity happens throughout life time. But what impact does the practice of meditation have on the brain of the elderly, particularly prone to cognitive decline?

This decline occurs frequently towards the end of life ; it is a natural process. After the age of 40, our brain starts to slowly lose certain abilities and ages structurally. These changes may be hastened by our living conditions, which may be linked to how others perceive us, our self-image, or by the fact that we become more exposed to the deaths of loved ones and to loneliness. And sleep disorders increase exponentially, affecting 50% of those above 65, as do neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's.

These pathological processes causing stress and anxiety have a significant detrimental impact on the quality of life and the health of the elderly ; prone to mental ruminations, they are often victims of depressive syndromes : « When we observe the process of rumination, it is easy to see the extent to which it constitutes a factor of disturbance. So we must free ourselves from these mental chain reactions we maintain through rumination. We need to learn to let thoughts arise and dissipate as they occur, instead of letting them take over our mind. »1 .

Like skills and knowledge, this ability to let « thoughts arise and dissipate as they occur, instead of letting them take over our mind” can be developed through training. By practicing mindfulness, we can emancipate ourselves from certain chains linked to cognitive aging and help prevent or slow down age-related degenerative illnesses.

Far from preconceived ideas, meditation is a conscious and active practice. Over time, through exercises and perseverance, meditation shapes our mind and develops our capacity for control, discernment and clear mindedness. We spend a lot of time improving the external conditions of our lives, but in the end it is always the mind which creates our experience of the world and translates it into well-being or suffering. Being able to act consciously on the way we perceive things is being able to transform our quality of life. It is this type of transformation which is brought about by mind training, what we call « meditation », a practice not limited to attention or what is generally referred to as « mindfulness. »

Most of our innate abilities lay dormant unless we do something, such as mind training, to bring them to their optimal functioning state. Through an empirical approach and a well-trained mind, the contemplatives have found efficient methods for gradually transforming emotions, moods and character traits, as well as for eroding deeply rooted atavistic tendencies that stand in the way of an optimal mode of being. Accomplishing this changes the quality of our lives at every moment by reinforcing fundamental human characteristics such as kindness, freedom, peace and inner strength.»2 .

Developing our mind's potential with practice and throughout life significantly improves both physical and cognitive health. Scientific studies have shown that practicing meditation can increase mental health and well-being in the aging population. A recent study by Dr. Gaëlle Chételat at INSERM (the French national institute of health and medical research) evaluates – with still preliminary results - the impact of meditative practice on preventing Alzheimer's disease.

Using medical imaging, Gaëlle Chételat analyzes the brain of 259 seniors3 : 67 of them have never practiced meditation while 6 have undertaken between 15,000 and 30,000 hours of meditation on attention, benevolence and other qualities. Looking at the volume of gray matter in the patients' brain, the greatest amount is found in the 6 who meditate regularly. More specifically, the cerebral areas dedicated to attention and the regulation of emotions present a much greater metabolism than those of other subjects. Though the scientists prefer not to make too general an affirmation, it seems that the brain of long-term practitioners is on average structurally and metabolically 10 to 15 years younger than those of same age subjects.

Meditation thus opens up a way to work against cellular aging and prevent cognitive deterioration. Just as we maintain our physical abilities through exercise, the mind also must continuously be trained by cultivating an attentive and kind presence to the world. When properly done, the practice of meditation unites body and mind through a discipline that fosters a feeling of plenitude and promotes health.

1 SINGER W, RICARD M, Cerveau et Méditation, chapitre 1, Ed. Allary, 2017

2 ibid

3 Chételat, G., Mézenge, F., Tomadesso, C., Landeau, B., Arenaza-Urquijo, E., Rauchs, G., André, C., Flores, R. de, Egret, S., Gonneaud, J., Poisnel, G., Chocat, A., Quillard, A., Desgranges, B., Bloch, J.-G., Ricard, M., & Lutz, A. (2017). Reduced age-associated brain changes in expert meditators: A multimodal neuroimaging pilot study. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 10160.