Meditation: fountain of youth, suggest UCLA researchers

paul bica, tourny fountain  quebec city, CC BY 2.0
Tourny Fountain, Quebec City, Paul Bica, CC BY 2.0

Live long and meditate, suggest UCLA researchers. Is meditation a fountain of youth?

Research to help people live longer, quality, lives is important. Brain health is essential, and our health risks increase during aging. To determine whether or not meditation helps people live longer and build denser gray matter, let’s examine a new UCLA research article.

Meditation might slow age-related brain loss

Originally published in UCLA Newsroom

Today, the average person lives longer than people living 50-100 years ago. But living longer does not necessarily mean quality of life when health deteriorates. Could meditation slow age-related brain loss? A UCLA press release says:

The years they [people who live longer] gain often come with increased risks for mental illness and neurodegenerative disease. Fortunately, a new study shows meditation could be one way to minimize those risks.

Building on their [researchers] earlier work that suggested people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter, a new study by UCLA researchers found that meditation appeared to help preserve the brain’s gray matter, the tissue that contains neurons.

fountain of youthThe scientists looked specifically at the association between age and gray matter. They compared 50 people who had meditated for years and 50 who didn’t. People in both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged. But the researchers found among those who meditated, the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it did among those who didn’t.

Sounds promising. Engage in meditation and preserve brain tissue. However, UCLA researchers are quick to admit that many activities that engage the brain may be slowing gray matter deterioration. A healthy lifestyle of proper diet, sleep, work, and physical exercise are likely to be factors in preserving gray matter. In other words, the researchers say, personality traits and habits may be as likely to help slow brain aging as meditation.

“In general, engaging the brain in intense mental activities has been suggested to stimulate dendritic branching and/or synaptogenesis.”

“Tissue [brain, gray matter] preservation might also be the result of better health in general, perhaps a consequence of healthier habits related to eating, sleeping, working, physical exercise, and/or resulting from higher levels of (self-)awareness, intelligence, socioeconomic status, etc. However, given that none of these aforementioned factors has been systematically assessed for the entire sample, all this is merely conjecture. On this note, we also wish to emphasize that, given the cross-sectional design of our study, it is impossible to draw any clear causal inferences. In addition to the factors discussed above, the diminished age-related tissue loss as well as the meditation practice itself may be a consequence of certain personal traits and/or practice-promoting circumstances.

For example, in order to keep meditating for close to 20 years, individuals need to possess a minimum level of discipline and commitment, a well-organized life that allows them the spare time, an awareness of the possibility to control their own life, perhaps even a calm nature to begin with. Clearly, not everyone has these traits, desires, and possibilities, and thus there might be a selection bias in our sample of long-term meditators. Future studies may thus further advance this field of research by capturing (and accounting for) characteristics unique to meditation samples.

Selection Bias? Problems?

“Selection bias refers to the selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis such that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed”, Wikipedia defines. ‘Selection bias’ refers to the distortion of a statistical analysis, resulting from the method of collecting samples. If the selection bias is not taken into account, then some conclusions of the study may not be accurate[1]. A problem with most studies that attempt to research meditation is cherry picking rather than randomized selecting of study participants. Conclusions made from “cherry picked” samples in studies are said to suffer from “spotlight fallacy”[2]. The study spotlights the data or subjects that researchers pick. More accurate study methods are needed before concluding that meditation slows brain aging. In the meantime, meditation OR engaging in intense mental activities, and living a healthy lifestyle seem to be the useful ways of slowing age-related brain loss.

The article appears in the online edition of the journal Frontiers in Psychology: Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy

Notes

1 Selection bias, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selection_bias

2 Selection bias, RationalWiki http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Selection_bias

7 comments

  1. saijanai

    I passed this along to my friends who do TM research. They’ve noted a few problems. The most obvious (from their point of view) is that there is no inclusion of TMers. Other issues are merely that there are so few people who actually practice any given technique that it is pretty much impossible to break things down by practice, and of course, the hallmark of a truly sophisticated 21st Century study, genetic and epigenetic testing, was not done at all, so there’s no easy way to create a database of results for future analysis as more data is selected.
    Many other issues come to mind, such as: is grey matter thickness in the brain the best measure of aging in the brain available in the first place?

    Anyway, here’s the table of test subjects used. You can see how few people there actually are, when you break it down by technique (and note that not one of them uses what trial and error has proven to be the best modern meditation practice (at least for TM): 2x daily practice. I would be in the top 5% of the group with 14 sessions per week, 45 minutes per session for 30+ years, and 14 sessions per week, 20 minutes per session, for another 11 years. Some of my friends would be even more experienced, with up to 3 sessions per day, with 160 minutes per session for nearly 40 years.

        Supplementary Table 1. Subject-specific meditation practices
    
    
        M/ Experience (in years)/ Frequency (times per week)/ Duration (minutes per session)/ Meditation Style (self-reported)
    
    
        1 4 4 30 Shamatha, Vipassana
    
    
        2 5 7 10 Shamatha
    
    
        3 6 5-6 15 [not specified]
    
    
        4 7 3 40 Zen
    
    
        5 7 7 60 Kriya
    
    
        6 7 3-4 60 Vipassana
    
    
        7 7 7 45 Shamatha, Vipassana
    
    
        8 7 7 120 Vipassana
    
    
        9 9 7 60 Tibetan Buddhist Meditation
    
    
        10 9 3 40 Vipassana
    
    
        11 10 7 60 Shamatha, Vipassana, Zen
    
    
        12 10 3 20 Kriya
    
    
        13 10 7 60 Vipassana
    
    
        14 12 1 40 [not specified]
    
    
        15 12 7 240 Shamatha
    
    
        16 12 7 15 [not specified]
    
    
        17 13 5-6 60 Zen
    
    
        18 14 1-2 30 Raja Yoga Meditation
    
    
        19 15 7 30 Zen
    
    
        20 15 7 30 Shamatha, Vipassana
    
    
        21 15 7 15 [not specified]
    
    
        22 15 7 45 Vipassana
    
    
        23 16 3-5 90 Zen
    
    
        24 16 7 30 [not specified]
    
    
        25 16 5-6 30 Vipassana
    
    
        26 16 7 60 Vipassana, Zen
    
    
        27 17 7 30 Vajrayana
    
    
        28 18 6 30 Mindfulness Meditation
    
    
        29 19 7 120 Vipassana
    
    
        30 20 7 45 Vipassana
    
    
        31 21 7 40 Vipassana
    
    
        32 21 7 60 Vipassana
    
    
        33 22 7 45 Buddhist Meditation
    
    
        34 22 7 60 [not specified]
    
    
        35 23 7 35 Vipassana
    
    
        36 25 3 30 Vipassana
    
    
        37 28 7 120 Dzogchen, Vipassana
    
    
        38 30 3 30 Zen
    
    
        39 31 7 60 Sadhana, Shamatha, Vipassana,
    
    
        40 31 7 60 Vipassana, Zen
    
    
        41 32 7 60 Dzogchen
    
    
        42 33 7 60 Vipassana
    
    
        43 36 6 20 Zen
    
    
        44 36 7 45 Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Vipassana
    
    
        45 38 1 60 [not specified]
    
    
        46 38 3 90 Chenrezig
    
    
        47 38 7 150 Dzogchen, Vajrayana
    
    
        48 41 3 60 Shamatha, Vipassana
    
    
        49 41 1 60 [not specified]
    
    
        50 46 7 45 Kundalini
    

    M: Meditators 1-50

  2. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: You’ve raised some good points about the study.
    Where did you get the data in the table? Can you provide the citation?

    The meditation styles in the table you provided are interesting to note. Vipassana shows numerous times. Kriya shows twice. Kriya could be the practice taught by Paramahansa Yogananda, which is what I’ve practiced for decades. 50 meditators, of mixed practices, seems like a small sample.

    I agree measuring “gray matter” may not be the best measure of slowing brain deterioration. But, seems like a reasonable assumption.

    Thanks

  3. saijanai

    It’s the supplemental table .doc data. The link is in the sidebar: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551/full

    Ny friend mailed it back, so I assumed it wasnt’ available in the original link. It was, or may have been put in after I first looked.

    I’m torn about whether or not to expect that TM will show ANY effect on this measure. TM is a relaxation practice. Relaxation shouldn’t directly increase grey-matter, I would think, although it is possible that age-related declines might be less. As well, improved connectivity between various parts of the brain might result in white matter density increases, but I don’t believe this would show up in the measurements they did.

    In general, researchers are always going to look for specific areas where they expect to find differences, rather than similarities. I’d be interested in know which (if any) meditation practice(s) the researchers do. Standard conflict of interest and financial disclosure forms for meditation research should include a request for that info. It’s easy to tell that TM researchers are biased if they work for “Maharishi University of Management,” but what about the surprisingly large contingent of Buddhists who are now doing research on mindfulness and so on? There’s an entire Buddhist Neuroscientists association out there I understand who believe it is their dharma to study mindfulness and promote its practice.

    Of course, the Zen warnings to NOT “practice” mindfulness are lost on them. In fact, I’ve seen the same warnings quoted to justify those practices:

    “drinking, drink. eating, eat” becomes: “while eating, practice mindfulness of eating. while drinking, practice mindfulness of drinking.”

    “Meditate and chop wood” becomes: “practice mindfulness while chopping wood.”

  4. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Thanks for sharing the citation to the table you reference, saijanai. The table from the research does seem heavily weighted towards subjects with “Buddhist” leaning meditation styles, eg. vipassana, mindfulness, zen.

    Mindfulness gets much attention in the media and popular culture. Mindfulness is not easily defined. Meditation often is equated with mindfulness. Always good idea to clarify terms or styles when looking at studies like this.

    UCLA has a mindfulness center http://marc.ucla.edu/ Perhaps that biased the researchers towards Buddhist style participants?

    I think the UCLA study we are discussing is interesting, though flawed or limited as these studies are.

    Yes, that would be interesting to find out if studies show relaxation and sleep also grow gray matter. The current study is claiming all forms of intense mental engagement stimulate gray matter density (hence slow aging). Seems that relaxation and sleep would also have a rejuvenating, growing effect on the brain or body.

    Thanks for your comments

  5. Pingback: The Benefits of Meditation for Seniors

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