Doctors have long recommended that people keep their minds busy in old age to protect against dementia. But shutting off and meditating might be the key to keeping the brain sharp, a new study suggests.
People who practiced the relaxation technique for 18 months scored better in cognitive tests than people given English lessons for the same length of time to keep their minds active.
One of the lead authors of the paper, Dr Gael Chetelat, from the University of Caen-Normandy in France, said: ‘Meditation was superior to non-native language training.’
It is the latest research to highlight the health benefits of mindfulness — which has also been linked to lower blood pressure and blood-sugar levels, as well as pain relief.
Meditation involves clearing the mind or focusing on a particular thought to train attention and awareness and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally stable state.
Trendy mindfulness meditation and yoga are as effective as diabetes drugs at lowering blood-sugar levels, research suggests
What is mindfulness?
Think of it as fitness for your mind.
Meditation calms the body, thus reducing blood pressure, stress levels and improving all over mood.
The objective of practicing mind-body activities is to use your thoughts to positively impact your body’s physical responses to the outside world.
The practices are part of an overarching wellness trend that has been touted by celebrities and tech giants for years.
These activities include….
The process of focusing one’s breath and focus on a particular thought, object or activity to foster a stable emotional state.
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of one’s surroundings.
A common technique is to silently focus on each of the senses in turn.
Pilates and yoga
They involve breathwork and coordinated, concentrated movement.
Both low-impact exercises, they improve strength, flexibility and posture.
In yoga, you adopt positions and hold them, or flow into a different position.
Pilates sees people adopting positions and then working their core muscles by moving their arms or legs.
Qigong, tai chi
Martial arts which promotes physical fitness as well as mental discipline.
Qigong and tai chi are traditional self-healing exercises originating from ancient China.
They feature coordinated movements focused on body posture, deep breathing and mental focus.
Qigong can include movement or simply sitting or standing mediation.
Tai chi, on the other hand, involves complex and choreographed movements that match one’s breath.
The study — published in the journal JAMA Neurology — included 137 men and women.
They were around 69 years old and did not have dementia.
Participants were split into three groups to either meditate, take English lessons or carry on as normal for 18 months.
The meditation and English lessons were done for two hours per week.
Participants were asked to complete tests that scored their attention spans and emotional states before and after the study.
The meditation group had significantly better improvements to this than those who took the lessons.
Dr Chetelat said: ‘Meditation was superior to non-native language training on 18-month changes in a global composite score capturing attention regulation, socio-emotional and self-knowledge capacities.
‘The study findings confirm the feasibility of meditation and non-native language training in elderly individuals, with high adherence and very low attrition.’
Meditation may have improved attention because it allowed for ‘heightened awareness and monitoring of contexts of experience without being absorbed by them’, the researchers said.
The study also monitored the size of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula — located in the front and middle of the brain — as well as blood flow to the organ.
Previous papers suggest meditation expands its size and improves blood flow.
But the scientists did not find any significant change in brain volume or blood flow between groups.
Dr Chetelat suggested this may have been because the study was too short to pick up any changes.
It also had a small sample size, which may have left it struggling to pick up changes.
Participants were recruited between November 2016 and March 2018.
The study was carried out between December 2020 and October 2021. All but one completed it.
Meditation has become increasingly popular over recent years, and has been credited with a variety of health benefits.
About 14 per cent of US adults now practice it annually, studies suggest, as it has boomed in popularity among CEOs over the mantra of ‘I’ll sleep when I die’.
Some research has linked it to slowing the advance of dementia by helping people stay focussed and boost happiness.
Dr Chetelat said: ‘Strategies to prevent dementia are urgently needed. Mental training that targets stress and attention regulation has the potential to improve both cognitive and emotional aspects of ageing.
‘Previous studies have shown mindfulness meditation improves cognition, specifically in older adults across multiple domains including attention, executive functions and self-awareness or meta-cognition.
‘Mindfulness meditation can also reduce stress, anxiety and depression – including in older adults.’
The number of dementia cases worldwide will triple to over 150 million by 2050.
With no cure in sight there is an increasing focus on lifestyle factors that are protective.