“We need enlightenment, not just individually but collectively, to save the planet. We need to awaken ourselves. We need to practice mindfulness if we want to have a future, if we want to save ourselves and the planet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
According to experts, as you age your brain shrinks losing both weight and volume. For most people this starts in their mid to late 20’s and continues for life. Most people’s vascular systems also decline, decreasing the blood supply to the brain.
On top of that, your risk of stroke increases and your memory declines.
Studies consistently find that you can reverse this trend by regularly practicing meditation. This has been true since the late 1960’s, when Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School tested its health benefits. His and other research has found that people who meditate regularly have substantially less decrease in their white brain matter.
White brain matter acts as your brains’ wiring. It connects, through nerve endings, everything you see, hear, smell, taste and touch to the grey matter in different parts of the brain. Gray matter takes care of your brain’s various neurological functions that help you talk, walk, read, sing, dance and remember.
The Usefulness of Mindfulness and Meditation
USA Today reported: “A government survey in 2007 found that about 1 out of 11 Americans, more than 20 million, meditated in the past year.” Of course, many more people meditate worldwide.
While it has its roots in eastern culture, we here in the west have begun to embrace meditation because of its many benefits, including:
• Reducing stress and anxiety
• Developing inner peace
• Helping with weight management
• Improving sleep
• Developing a healthy immunity system
• Reducing chronic pain
• Lowering blood pressure
• Improving focus and attention
• Reducing depressive thoughts
• Boosting memory
• Improving cardiovascular and heart health
• Developing deeper relationships
• Improving overall wellbeing
Now it seems that meditating may also help to keep our brains young.
After the discovery that regular meditation preserves white matter in the brain, a team of UCLA researchers decided to measure its effects on grey matter. They found that people who regularly meditate have a higher retention of gray matter as well. Additionally, these researchers found that meditation has positive effects not only the specific brain regions associated with meditation, but widespread effects on the whole brain.
This study compared people that had meditated for an average of 20 years with those who had never meditated. The participants ranged age from people in their mid-20s to people in their late 70s and included 28 men and 22 women.
What they found was while the meditators did experience a decline in gray matter with age it was sustainably less than non-meditators. While the researchers noted a positive outcome of the study, they cautioned people reviewing the results, because they were unable to establish a direct link to meditation and the preservation of gray matter.
In another 2012 UCLA study, meditators were found to have more gyrification (also known as convolution), or folds in their brains. They speculate that this may contribute to an ability process information faster than usual.
Meditator’s improved ability to maintain both white and gray matter and form increased connections in their brains seems to keep their brains young. Along with its positive effects on white and gray brain matter, meditation appears to have a positive effect on other body functions.
The Anti-Aging Effects of Meditation
Here are some ways Mindfulness helps you stay young:
• Meditation seems to promote an increase in Melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland that helps control your sleep and wake cycles. In addition to helping you sleep better, it also acts as an antioxidant which helps supports the immune system
• Meditation seems to increase the natural production of DHEA, a hormone produced by your body’s adrenal glands. Your natural supply of DHEA facilitates the production of the hormones that maintain your fat and mineral metabolism.
• Meditation also seems to decrease cortisol levels, another hormone produced by the adrenal gland that is released in response to stress and low blood glucose. Studies have found that cortisol encourages the body to retain the dangerous belly fat that is associated with heart disease and diabetes.
The Effects of Meditation
Much of maintaining a youthful mental outlook has to do with how you think. By learning how to quiet their mental chaos meditators improve their ability to concentrate and focus. They also experience more clarity and tend to react less to negative circumstances.
In short, as they age meditators are better able to maintain their ability to quickly adapt and calmly think through issues that come up, choosing their response to situations rather than reacting to them.
A good plan is to try to meditate at least twice a day for around twenty minutes. Most experts recommend meditating at the start of the day and at the end of it, but it’s really best to practice when you feel most comfortable and have time in your schedule.
Don’t worry if you don’t have 20 minutes. You will still receive much benefit from meditating even if you meditate for 5 or 10 minutes.
It’s also best to choose the style that bests fits your lifestyle and personality. While as a martial artist I personally gravitate toward the first two on the following list, there are many to choose from, including:
• Qigong (Chi Kung)
• Tai Chi
• Primordial Sound Meditation
• Stress Reduction Meditation
• Yoga, especially Kundalini Yoga
•Metta Meditation (Loving Kindness Meditation)
• Focused Attention Meditation
• OM or Mantra Meditation
The Best Time to Start is NOW!
It will take time to train your mind to focus and settle into a regular practice, but while learning takes patience, you don’t need to wait for the perfect time to start.
Take the first step which is to figure out which from of meditation you wish to practice, and then learn how to do it. You can go to an expert or your check out one or more of the many books, DVD’s as well as the free information that’s available online to learn the steps you need to begin.
Like when forming any other habit, try to do it at the same time daily. If you find this isn’t possible be sure to meditate every day because building your meditation practice is more important than when you do it.
Once you have developed the habit of a consistent meditation practice, you’ll reap the benefits, slowing your brain’s decline and keeping it youthful and dynamic for years to come.
About the author:
Wil Dieck is a writer, speaker, researcher, college professor and master martial arts instructor. He studies and teaches people from all walks of life how to use simple psychological techniques to develop high performance habits.
Wil’s most recent works includes the highly ranked Amazon Kindle book, Secrets of the Black Belt Mindset, Turing Simple Habits into Extraordinary Success and Modern Mindfulness, A Beginners Guide on How to Find Peace and Happiness in a Busy World.
In addition to his work as a researcher, writer, and speaker, Wil is a professor of psychology and business at San Diego University of Integrated Studies.
Wil runs a peak performance coaching practice in San Diego, California. Additionally, he regularly works with people who are suffering from stress and anxiety using meditation, hypnotherapy and NLP.