Meditation could help to age better by strengthening emotional capacities and their regulation, concludes a study carried out on Norman sexagenarians. Practiced long enough, it could even make the brain more resistant to the onset of dementia, although this remains to be demonstrated in future studies.
Reduce stress to improve aging
“Scientifically, it cannot be denied that meditation has a positive impact on aging”, affirms the director of research at Inserm Gaël Chételat, first author of this work published in JAMA Neurology. At least a third of Alzheimer’s disease could be prevented just by treating modifiable factors like anxiety, depression or stress, she points out. However, mindfulness meditation has precisely demonstrated its benefits on these mental health issues. But not only, since its intensive practice in young people is also linked to a stronger activation of two brain areas. Called anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula, they however suffer from decreased activity during aging. “The CCA is often linked to reserve factors (protective, editor’s note) in aging, and insulates it rather to the regulation of emotions and feelings of self.”, explains Gaël Chételat. Since promoting well-being and good management of stress and emotions reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, having people in their 60s meditate could well lead to changes in their behavior and their brain, reason the researchers.
Brain areas and behaviors altered by aging
In Caen in Normandy, 137 healthy sixties either meditated, learned English, or continued their usual life for 18 months, during which their behavior, several health parameters and their brain were scrutinized. “Our study is part of a large European project and many parameters such as sleep, blood results or even connectivity and brain activity have been recorded.”, specifies Gaël Chételat. In their study, only the activity and volume of the CCA and the insula are studied, as well as three behavioral characteristics: attention span, self-knowledge (self-evaluation of one’s own thoughts and emotions) and regulation of emotions. “These are three very important capacities because they are weakened by aging, and reinforced by meditation”adds the researcher.
Meditating improves abilities and may modulate brain activity
And indeed, after 18 months, the meditating sexagenarians showed better attention and emotion regulation skills. On the other hand, the volume of the CCA and the insula did not differ from the two other groups, which learned English or continued their usual life. “When I saw the results, I thought to myself that it was not so surprising, because aging is a very slow process which is done over 10 to 40 years and not over 18 months”, interprets Gaël Chételat.
However, the activity of these same brain regions had actually evolved in favor of meditation, but in a way that was too marginal to be able to conclude that there was a proven effect. “The figures all go in the direction of meditation, but it is a trend that does not allow us to conclude”, analyzes the scientist. “Even if this is not entirely significant, we still see that the meditators gain 13 months on the drop in activity of these brain regions compared to the control groups! It is not insignificant.” For the researchers, it would probably take a larger number of people examined over longer than 18 months to observe a solid effect of meditation. Already, the Norman participants, some of whom voluntarily continue the meditation, continue to be followed in order to test this hypothesis. In addition, there is still a great deal of data to analyze on the impact of meditation on healthy sixty-somethings. “With this study, we have exploited perhaps a millionth of the data collected, the rest is being examined by 11 teams in six European countries”enthuses Gaël Chételat.
In the meantime, the researcher is convinced, “meditating can only do good, whether you are old or not!”.
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Meditation against dementia, a scientifically supported hope – Sciences et Avenir
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