The Role of Mindfulness in Brain Health

April 19, 2016

Seniors – what if you could boost your brain function while doing mundane tasks like washing the dishes, or dusting? Research is coalescing around the idea that virtually anything we do can benefit us cognitively, when we act with mindfulness. Also known as mindful meditation, mindfulness is increasingly being credited with causing measurable changes in the brain, from increasing grey matter and improving concentration, to slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s. And it appears you don’t have to be a life-long yogi to reap the benefits; doctors have measured cognitive improvements over periods of weeks, not years, in healthy seniors over 65, and even in those who’ve already experienced neurological impairment.

What is Mindful Meditation?

While the term might conjure up images of someone sitting on a mountaintop, its reality is far more complex. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Johns Hopkins researcher Madhav Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness.” That singular focus is ideally achieved in many contexts, from sitting quietly and focusing on breathing, to doing something more active like loading the dishwasher. The goal of mindfulness is to train the brain to tune out distractions and be singularly mindful of the present moment, wherever it may be.

The Benefits of Mindfulness on the Aging Brain

Researchers studying the practice in seniors are seeing measurable cognitive improvements in a number of encouraging areas:

  • Changes in Brain Composition: several meditation-based studies have suggested an increase in grey matter in the parts of the brain associated with both short- and long-term memory; learning; problem solving, and emotional regulation. One study in particular involved participants 55-90 who had some form of mild cognitive impairment. Those who practiced just eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction  (MBSR) demonstrated improved functional connectivity in the part of the brain associated with memory retention.
  • Improved Focus and Concentration: Meditation and mindfulness are all about learning to maintain one’s focus, and scientists are convinced it doesn’t take much practice to improve this essential skill. The first study of its kind to measure meditation and concentration found its participants showed progress in just 12 weeks. Countless others have been performed since then that have reinforced these findings, often through just minutes a day of meditation.
  • Slowing the Progress of Dementia: Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have lead the way in this area, through their pioneering 2013 study that indicated for the first time the role meditation can play in slowing age-related cognitive disorders among people who were already showing symptoms. Participants were split into two groups; one group practiced supervised MBSR, was encouraged to supplement with meditation at home, and attended a day-long mindfulness retreat. At the end of eight weeks, the MBSR group showed significantly improved functional connectivity in their memory center, as well as slowed atrophy in their hippocampus (the area associated with learning, emotion, and memory).

Additionally, it’s worth noting the profound cognitive gains demonstrated in people who have indeed practiced meditation for a long period. In a recent UCLA study, seniors who had been meditating an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain than those who had never practiced, and even those who experienced some volume loss had far less than non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Interested in learning more? Mindfulness Meditation expert Andy Puddicombe delivered a fantastic TED talk on the topic that you can watch here.