The practice of mindfulness meditation has moved: once found only in yoga studios and on the new-age fringes, it has now taken a place in mainstream medicine.
Mindfulness applications are now routinely used to reduce and manage stress, depression, chronic pain, and other chronic health conditions.
In mindfulness training, individuals learn to focus their attention on what is happening in the present moment. They usually start by paying attention to their breathing, by simply becoming aware of each in-breath and each out-breath.
Why you should meditate
Mindfulness allows for a nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and states of mind—it lets people be aware of their thoughts but not get carried away by them.
Scientists have known for some time that meditation is a very effective technique for alleviating conditions like anxiety and depression, both of which, if left unchecked, are risk factors that increase the susceptibility to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Only relatively recently, though, have they discovered that meditation directly affects our grey matter.
Yes, it actually changes the human brain: people who meditate experience changes in brain structure that those who do not meditate do not experience. The evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can also increase the structural connectivity between brain areas, as measured by white matter tracts in the brain, and that it can decrease the rate of cellular aging.
And now a landmark study has shown not only that meditation can change our brains for the better but also that it can do so in just eight weeks—even if we have never meditated before. It seems it is never too late or too onerous to learn brain-healthy practices.
Meditation changes your brain
The website food.ndtv.com describes this study as follows. In a study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, U.S. researchers measured the brains of 16 people who had never meditated before and then again after they had completed an eight-week meditation program. During that time, the group spent an average of 27 minutes a day practising mindfulness meditation.
At the end of the study the researchers found there was increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory, and in other brain structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also a reduction in the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers anxiety and stress.
In addition, a UCLA study published in 2009 that used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan participants’ brains found increased volumes in the brain regions known for regulating emotions—the hippocampus and areas within the orbitofrontal cortex, the thalamus, and the inferior temporal gyrus—in long-term meditators (who used various meditation techniques) compared to non-meditators.
The implication is clear: meditation can lead to a calmer existence due to enhanced emotional control that is tied directly to changes in the brain that are caused by the meditation itself. No wonder meditation is prescribed as a stress reliever!
Meditation is an area of medical treatment that is rapidly evolving as we learn more about its benefits. To test it for yourself, you might want to try this five-minute mindfulness meditation practice.
• Sit on the floor or on a chair. Make sure your back is straight and arms relaxed. Or, if it is more comfort- able for you, lie on the floor.
• Bring your attention to your breath for one minute. Feel how your belly rises and falls.
• Widen your attention to include all your bodily sensations and any thoughts or feelings you may be having.
• Try to be a neutral observer of your thoughts and feelings. If you find yourself swept up in a train of thought or emotion, just return to focusing on your breath.
(For more about the benefits of meditation, I also recommend the following website: www.mindful.org)
Bottom line: reducing your levels of stress through activities like exercise and meditation can decrease the rate of cellular aging and therefore decrease your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
Printed with permission from A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging by Vivien Brown M.D.(Barlow Books.) Available in stores on September 23 and for pre-order online.