Can meditation help you live longer?
Meditation doesn’t just free the mind, it could also keep it young. A recent study claims that regular meditation can knock seven and a half years off the middle-aged brain.
Researchers at Jena University Hospital in Germany claim that the combination of intense concentration and relaxation may trigger the growth of new brain cells. This is a significant discovery because Altzheimers and other memory related malfunctions are symptoms of brain shrinkage, which in turn is due to neurons dying off in old age.
The scientists scanned the brains of 50 American men and women who regularly meditated and 50 men and women who didn’t. When the scans were analysed, the images provided an age for each brain based on its physical condition – and the results were striking.
In general, the non-meditators’ brain age and actual age were about the same, so a 55 year old’s brain looked like it was 55. But the meditators’ brains were younger than their years, with the average 50-year-old having a brain that belonged in a 42 or 43 year-old head.
The differences were particularly apparent in the older meditators – for every extra year spend meditiating in youth, once the owner passed the age of 50, an extra year was knocked off brain age. If this research is accurate, then the results at least appear to suggest that meditation is beneficial for brain preservation, with a slower rate of brain ageing throughout life. This is an idea that I find extremely attractive, because, if you will forgive me for jumping on my old hobby horse, meditation involves relaxation, awareness and positive thinking – and no pills or potions!
Dr Christian Gaser, who collaborated with US and Australian scientists in the study, published in the journal NeuroImage, admits it isn’t absolutely clear how meditation protects the brain. It might just be that the mental processes involved in meditation really do trigger the growth of new cells and connections. The natural brain chemicals responsible for feelings of calm and well-being produced by meditation may also help.
However, before we get too excited about this research, it is only correct – and scientifically correct – to include a note of caution. It could be that those who meditate may lead healthier lifestyles anyway. It is also possible that some inherent difference in brain structure makes particular people more likely to take up meditating.
The participants in the study had all practised various types of traditional meditation for an average of 20 years, and some practiced as many as seven times a week. Some had more than 40 years’ experience under their belt.
The results give no clue as to whether shorter periods of meditation would also be of benefit, or if mindfulness, the ‘meditation-lite’ technique that is becoming increasingly popular, would have the same effect.
But the scans revealed that meditation isn’t the only way to keep the mind youthful – being female also helps. Apparently, the brains of the women volunteers were, on average, three years younger than the men’s, whether they meditated or not.
Nonetheless, meditation is credited with boosting health in numerous ways, from boosting the immune system to easing loneliness.
The bad news? While many swear by calm, relaxing and focussed meditation, some warn it can produce unpleasant side-effects, ranging from twitching and trembling to hallucinations, depression and even breakdowns, although these incidences are rare. They say that although meditation can be therapeutic, it can also cause hitherto undetected problems to rise to the surface. There are echos here of bad practice in hypnotherapy and other types of mind therapies, where sometimes strange and imagined, even invented or accidentally implanted problems such as false memories, can result.
In a study carried out by the University of California, researchers found that 63% of people who had been on meditation retreats suffered at least one side-effect, ranging from confusion to panic and depression. There is a glaringly obvious reason for this and having looked carefully at these kind of intense meditation weekends, it is hardly surprising that some people abreact.
It is inadviseable to get people to meditate almost non-stop for an entire weekend. Quite apart from the fact that meditating for 10 hours a day actually has the opposite effect to that desired, the brain can become confused and weary. Hardly surprising then that some individuals begin to hallucinate. This is the same kind of techniques used by dangerous fringe religions on unsuspecting novices.
Other research has flagged up different issues from twitches and fits, to flapping arms and euphoria. Again, unsurprising, given that when people get together in groups, there can be outbreaks of mass hysteria, even though in most cases mild in nature. Hysteria is a phenomenon that is well known and understood – perhaps a little too well understood by the gurus and swamis whose purpose it is to achieve that end.
Add to that the other well undertood ingredient of suggestibility, and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. Sometimes, problems can last for years and interfere with work and relationships.
Overall, meditation is a worthwhile pursuit and generally harmeless. Its benefits outweigh any risks – if done properly, there is no more risk to mental health than listening to music or regularly taking part in sports or watching box sets!
The benefits of meditation are recognised and the vast majority of experts consider it to be a good thing.