As we age our brains naturally atrophy. This means they slowly lose neurons and the connections between them.
But, new data suggests long-term meditators are bucking this trend. Their brains are showing stronger connections and less atrophy; they are, essentially, looking younger.
Now, Eileen Luders, assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neurological Imaging is asking: Could meditation be the key to fighting senile dementia?
“If practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy,” she writes. “Perhaps by positively affecting the immune system."
Luders and her colleagues studied brains on meditation using a new technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI). They used 27 active meditation practitioners and 27 control subjects. The experimental group had between 5 and 46 years of experience.
Results showed the meditators brains’ to be structurally different from the control group. The meditators enjoyed a range of brain areas with stronger neural connections and less atrophy.
The study appears in the current online edition of the journal NeuroImage.
Luders, herself a meditator, conducted the experiment as a follow-up to a previous study.
Two years ago, she and her team revealed that the brains of longterm meditators were larger and had more grey matter than a control group. But this does not conclusively prove that meditation is directly responsible for these results.
"It's possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with," Luders said. "For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice.”
Still, this is potentially valuable news. In the West, for example, an aging population means millions of new cases of dementia are surfacing every year. And in a study released last year, Alzheimer’s Disease International, a London-based consumer group, said 35.6 million people worldwide are living with dementia. They estimated the total annual global cost of dementia at $604-billion (U.S.).