PUMPING IRONY: The Brain Shrinkage Solution: Sit Still

I wasn’t thinking about much of anything when I started a meditation practice 20 years ago, but it now seems to have been a pretty smart move.

meditation bench
This may be all I need to save my aging brain.

Conventional wisdom tells us that we’re all going to lose brain tissue as we get older. It’s just a sad fact of the geezer life, like creaky knees and a general cluelessness about popular culture. I haven’t given this much thought because, frankly, I don’t give much thought to anything (could be a shrinkage issue), but for the rest of you it might be a concern, as it can bring on cognitive problems you might want to avoid in your golden years.

Despite my admitted cluelessness about Beyoncé’s latest album and the looming threat of brain shrinkage, I recently discovered that I’ve actually been doing something during these last 20 years to save my pea-sized brain. Most every morning, I drag out a lumpy old exercise mat and a small wooden bench (of my own design!) where I place my aging butt as I spend the next 15 minutes or so following my breath while observing random thoughts and plans and other ephemera passing through the drafty space between my ears. I’ve long been aware of meditation’s many benefits — lower blood pressure, stress management, increased compassion and empathy, awesome cosmic insights, etc. — but a new study out of UCLA suggests that the practice may be helping to bulk up my geezer brain.

Scientists there had earlier noted that meditation could prevent the white matter in the brain from shrinking, but these recent findings indicate that it has a similar effect on gray matter, the part of the brain where your neurons operate. Researchers conducted brain scans of 100 people ages 24 to 77 and found that those who had been practicing meditation for many years (20 years on average) had retained more of their gray matter than those who had not meditated.

“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” study co-author Florian Kurth, PhD, said in a statement released by the university. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Kurth and his colleagues don’t actually explain why this occurs, but other research has suggested that meditation can help our aging telomeres (the protective caps shielding our chromosomes) by lowering various levels of stress.

Here’s how a team of researchers from the University of California – San Francisco summarized it:

“Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.”

This is good news for this small-brained geezer, and it might encourage other folks to make zazen a regular part of their daily routine as they move into and beyond middle age. It requires no particular effort, apart from sitting still, and it can sometimes help you put things in their proper perspective. Stuff like shrinking brains, creaky knees, and maybe even pop music.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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