Most of us make time each week to workout at the gym, attend a yoga class, or go for a run. Inspired by the effects of aging on our bodies, we are compelled to work out to stay healthy and fit. As we age, our metabolism slows down, our energy levels wane, and we notice sagging and wrinkles in areas that shouldn’t sag or wrinkle. These physical changes inspire us to hit the gym to combat these signs of aging. Not only do our bodies show the signs of aging, so do our brains. Although brain aging is not visible, and therefore less apparent, our brains shrink or atrophy as we age, and we lose our memory and our thinking abilities. But there is hope. New studies of the brain and aging have shown evidence that we can slow down brain aging and even strengthen our brains with the age-old practice of meditation.
Exciting research now reveals that the way we use our brain and care for it can enhance its neuroplasticity. Scientists use to believe that the human brain was a relatively static organ. But emerging studies reveal that we can actually change our brain structure throughout our life. Changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, can actually alter the neural pathways and synapses in our brain, changing the way our brain functions. Exciting new scientific studies, such as one conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, use MRI scans to document before and after changes in the brain associated with mindfulness meditation. After eight weeks, the MRI scans revealed an increased density in areas of the brain associated with memory, self-awareness and compassion, and decreases in the amygdala, which is associated with fear and stress.
I recently attended the first Advances in Meditation Research Conference, where neuroscientists spoke of their recent research in which they studied the neurological effects of meditation on the brain. The results were inspiring. Although much of the discussion was highly scientific and too technical for my brain to fully comprehend, their conclusions were quite clear that meditation can have a positive effect on our brains. At the conference, researchers discussed their recent studies that showed evidence that meditation practices slow down the natural course of aging, effectively treat the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and alzheimers, and increase brain function in their test cases.
Mindfulness meditation, which requires focused attention for a prolonged period of time, may sound easy, but it requires tremendous effort and mental discipline. Anyone who has tried sitting quietly for twenty minutes knows that it is hard work. Just like going to the gym or running a few miles, meditation is difficult at first. Over time, however, that hard work pays off. Just like building biceps, we can strengthen our brain and slow down the effects of aging by committing to meditation and mindfulness excercises that are proving to be incredibly beneficial. So what are you waiting for?