By Dr. Isuri Wimalasiri & Dr. Kasunka Gamage, Under the Guidance of Professor Ranil de Silva, Genetic Diagnostic and Research Laboratory, Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
Aging is an unavoidable phenomenon that every living being has to undergo in the natural course of their life, provided the said living being does not encounter an untimely departure. Over the centuries, human beings have made many attempts to avoid or at least delay this unavoidable yet much unwanted process. Despite numerous attempts and interventions no one ever lived has been able to avoid aging altogether. However, most agree that it is possible to make the effects of aging less apparent or make this dreaded process more agreeable.
Of course, it is easy to change or remove the physical changes associated with aging; the world is not devoid of people who spend fortunes to drink from the fountain of youth. Yet, given the chance to choose what would be your choice? To have a youthful physical appearance at your death bed so that you can lie in your coffin without hurting anyone’s eyes or to have full possession of your faculties until the very day you say goodbye to this life?
No doubt, the majority would go with the latter mentioned choice and would prefer to have a functioning brain instead of a gorgeous and a youthful physical appearance when they turn the last few pages of their book of life. Yet, a very few people actually consider trying to prevent their brains from succumbing to effects of aging. Anyway, this monograph brings happy news to those who wish to have youthful brains; there is scientific evidence that your wish can be granted by meditation.
Authors of this monograph did a comprehensive analysis of results of recently done research related to ‘effects of meditation on brain’. One such study, “Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy” (2014) conducted by University of California, USA and Australian National University, Australia found out that age related changes in the brain were significantly less pronounced in meditators in comparison to the control group comprised of non-meditators. The researchers of this study speculate two possible mechanisms for the conspicuous differences seen between two groups.
Firstly, engaging in intense brain stimulating activities such as meditation can mask the natural age-related decay of brain matter by triggering formation of new connections, a process known as ‘synaptogenesis’. Another study conducted by Harvard Medical School, USA in collaboration with three leading universities in Germany, Netherlands and Belgium also supported this premise. The latter-mentioned study pointed out that significantly greater degree of behavioral flexibility, mental health and well-being seen in yoga practitioners and vipassana meditators were most likely to be due to greater connectivity between numerous brain areas.
The second speculation postulated by “Forever Young(er)” research team was that meditation can in fact delay the process of brain decay itself by reducing stress and anxiety levels. According to them, potentially harmful effects of stress and anxiety including, hypothalami-pituitary axis hyperactivity, down-regulation of neurogenesis, activation of pro-inflammatory processes and oxygen free radical damage are eliminated and/or minimized by meditation.
Impact of meditation on cellular aging was also assessed by a research conducted by University of California San Francisco, USA. This study disclosed that some forms mindfulness meditation can influence the rate of telomere shortening, an age-related cellular change and a predictor of a number of age- related diseases including, diabetes mellitus and cerebrovascular accident. According to this study, reduced stress levels and positive mental states achieved during meditation help to reduce the rate of telomere shortening and by extension, susceptibility to aforementioned age-related diseases.
As we all know, sleep is essential for proper brain function. Thus, guaranteeing one’s self a sound and adequate sleep indeed gives a re-vitalized brain, a premise brought forth by a study done by David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, USA. According to this study, mindfulness meditation improves quality of sleep by improving insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms and modulating fatigue interference by reducing fatigue severity.
A study conducted by West Virginia University, USA suggested that meditation can in fact be used as a therapeutic intervention for Alzheimer’s disease, a neurocognitive disorder that causes deterioration in memory, behavior and thinking and accounts for 60% to 70% of cases of dementia. The beneficial effects of meditation including, reduction of stress, depression, and blood pressure contribute to improved cognition and induce favorable changes in the brain structure and function.
In addition to improving individual well-being, meditation also helps to create societal harmony. Lack of empathy is one of the grass root factors that lead to many discords and disputes in the society. A collaborative study done by University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, University of Hong Kong, China, University of Aberdeen, UK, and University of Chicago, USA found out that brief mindfulness meditation enhanced both mental state attribution and empathic concern in meditators compared to a control group comprised of non-meditators.
A study of this kind in Sri Lanka was initiated by Prof. Ranil de Silva as the principle investigator at Genetic Diagnostic and Research Laboratory, Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura in collaboration with Dr. Lochandaka Ranathunga, Department of Information Technology, Faculty of Information Technology, University of Moratuwa with the purpose of assessing the applicability of 2500 years old Buddhist meditation as a non-pharmacological intervention for healthy aging, prevention & treatment of diseases. Initial step of this project was to examine how the meditation affects the function of the central nervous system using spectral analysis of Electroencephalography with specific focus on the mind relaxation effect of meditation.
In conclusion, there is ample evidence that meditation promotes healthy brain changes and delays the age-related brain deterioration. The author of ‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and many other masterpieces, Samuel Langhorne Clemens who was better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, once said, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.” Whether you are a fan of Twain’s works or not, you cannot possibly deny the truth in what he said. Of course, the process of aging is inevitable; what we can do is try and make it more agreeable.