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.
The 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. 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”. 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
1 Selection bias, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selection_bias
2 Selection bias, RationalWiki http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Selection_bias