Can meditation slow down the inevitable age-related cognitive decline?
As we age, our cognitive ability slowly slides. The resulting deficits could impact reasoning, memory, and processing speed, among other things.
It can also affect our ability to concentrate and focus.
Since people in the United States are now living longer lives, researchers are keen to find ways to keep our brains healthy and alert for longer.
To help us retain a sharp focus, scientists have trialed a range of potential interventions — including computer-based cognitive training programs and lifestyle changes.
Meditation and mindfulness as interventions have also shown promise. For instance, meditation is considered to boost a range of cognitive abilities, such as mental clarity, stability, and creativity, while increasing the length of time that someone can hold their focus.
Importantly, meditation is easy to practice at home, relatively cost-effective, and unlikely to cause side effects.
Several studies have investigated mindful interventions and witnessed certain benefits, such as a reduction in mind wandering. However, few have assessed whether meditation's benefits can endure over longer periods of time.
Meditation over the long-term
Over the past few years, an ongoing study has been attempting to fill this gap in our understanding. Scientists from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Center for Mind and Brain have been following a group of people who attended a meditation course 7 years ago.
Their study was recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.
The "Shamatha Project" was led by Anthony Zanesco, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami, FL, who started on the project before beginning his Ph.D. in psychology at UC Davis.
The project followed 60 experienced meditators who attended two meditation retreats held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, CO.
The attendees were schooled by a Buddhist scholar, teacher, and author called B. Alan Wallace, from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies in California.
During the retreats, the participants had two group meditation sessions every day, and, for the remainder of their days, they meditated for an average of 6.75 additional hours.
The benefits of meditation
The attendees were assessed before, during, and just after the retreat. Then, they were followed-up at 6 months, 18 months, and the 7-year mark.
By the end of the study, 40 subjects were still involved, all of whom reported that they continued to use meditation in some form for an average of 1 hour per day.
Straight after the retreat, the participants were compared with a control group who had traveled to Santa Barbara but not been part of the course. The meditators demonstrated improvements in general psychological well-being, their ability to cope with stress, and maintaining attention.
Seven years later, the gains in attention were still present to some degree — particularly among older group members who practiced meditation the most often. These people did not show the expected levels of age-related decline in sustained attention.
The authors conclude, "These findings provide initial, yet provocative, evidence that continued meditation practice may be associated with a moderation of age-related decline in attentional components known to be sensitive to aging."
"This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person's life."
As the meditation-based benefits appeared to plateau immediately after the retreats, Zanesco believes that this might inform us about how much influence meditation can have. Perhaps the ceiling was reached in this relatively short intervention.
Cautions and potential issues
Although this is the largest and longest study of its kind, more work will need to be done. There is a raft of potentially confounding variables to be considered. At this stage, we cannot definitively conclude that meditation was responsible for the benefits that they measured.
For instance, someone who attends a meditation retreat and continues to meditate is likely to have other lifestyle differences, such as a more healthful diet. They are also more likely to read up about meditation and related mindfulness texts, which could impact cognitive ability and general outlook on life.
As the authors write in their study paper, "[C]ausation cannot be attributed to the moderation of aging-related decline with continued meditation practice in our sample. It is therefore critical that more research is conducted before advocating meditation practice as an intervention for cognitive aging."