Does meditation slow down ageing?
Meditation is becoming more and more popular as there is increasing evidence that meditation-based training promotes healthy ageing across many dimensions. So far, mental training has been shown to improve cognition, physical well-being, and emotional health in older age, potentially delaying the onset of dementia.
Meditation is an easily accessible tool that can be integrated into the daily routine. The mind-body practice is suitable for people of every age, educational background, culture, and religion. Even older people who may have limited finances or mobility can practice mindful meditation any time, anywhere.
Effects of mediation on ageing mechanisms
The medical research into the impact of meditation on the brain and cognition in ageing is scarce but encouraging. During the mental practice, your breath slows down and the heart rate, blood pressure, and stress decrease.
“Meditation is like a pause button that breaks the cycle of worry. It can help older adults better accept their changing bodies or chronic pain. It puts them more in control of their lives,” says Bob Linscott from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
These are the visible benefits of the mindful practice, but what are the underlying mechanisms that help preserve cognitive performance and mental capacity? Research shows that meditation acts on several biological processes implicated in brain ageing:
Telomeres are an essential part of human cells that protect our genome from degradation. They are located at the ends of the chromosomes and shorten with every cell division. Telomere shortening has been associated with age-related conditions like dementia and cognitive decline. Mindfulness-based training maintains telomere length and increases their activity, thereby reducing the risk of chronic illnesses.
Inflammation is the body’s natural process of fighting harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, damaged cells or toxins. Chronically elevated levels of pro-inflammatory proteins increase the risk for disease, poor healing, and mortality. Abundant levels of these proteins are linked to the process of pathological pain. Meditation reduces the circulating markers of inflammation, which improves organism fitness by enhancing immune defences that protect against viral and bacterial infection and various age-related disease conditions, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type-2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Reduces stress is probably the most commonly known effect of meditation. Instead of worrying, mindful training focuses on presence and awareness, which help with managing stress. A laboratory test has shown that the practice decreases levels of a physiological marker of stress, cortisol. The hormone is needed for fight or flight response- a healthy, natural response to perceived threats. However, the chronic release of cortisol disrupts almost all our body’s processes. Decreased levels of stress hormone promote cell longevity by protecting previously mentioned telomeres.
Studies have shown that meditation increases brain structure and function. Grey matter volume, which includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception, is higher in a group of meditation practitioners than in non-meditators. The finding suggests that long-term meditation might increase cognitive reserve and delay the onset of dementia.
Meditation as prevention and treatment strategy
Despite the research and numerous dementia clinical trials, there is still no cure for the condition. Research shows that expert meditators have more preserved brain structures than age-matched controls, which means that mindful practice could be a tool preventing cognitive decline in those at risk. Among other prevention strategies such as quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight or exercising regularly, one could add meditation to the list of evidence-based interventions. Adults with memory disorders could benefit from the practice as it slows down the ageing process but also help alleviate dementia symptoms.
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