A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has concluded that meditating regularly helps delay ageing. The research, conducted by a team of scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US, and Australian National University at Canberra, concluded that meditation had a positive effect on the grey matter in the brain, which in turn reduces the incidence of age-related brain disorders such as dementia.
The study compared 50 subjects who meditated daily with 50 others who did not. Each group was made up of 28 men and 22 women in the age range of 24-77 years. In the study group, the participants had meditated for 4 to 46 years, with an average of 20 years. High resolution MRI scans were done on all the participants and the results from the two groups were compared. Although participants in both the groups showed a decline in their grey matter, those in the meditation group had markedly less reduction in the grey matter.
The researchers concluded that although a direct causal link could be established between meditation and reduced ageing, it was nevertheless a promising finding that may stimulate further study in the said area. Unfortunately it is not clear from the publication what sort of meditative techniques the participants in the study group undertook.
The authors state in their introduction that the longevity of the world population has increased by ten years in the last 40 years or so, owing largely to the improvements in socio-economic status and global healthcare. However, on the downside, the incidences of age-related disorders such as cerebrovascular diseases and dementia have also increased.
However, keeping the brain active by carrying out stimulating activities such as solving puzzles, reading, writing, picking up a hobby, learning a new language or even exercising, can improve brain health by preserving the brain tissue. From this study, it appears that meditation also does the same thing in the same manner.
The authors suggest that the effects of meditation could be due to the fact that the level of stress and anxiety in those who meditate is very less, which in turn helps conserve the grey matter. However, several prominent yogis such as B.K.S. Iyengar have pointed out that ‘one does not meditate to relax, but one relaxes to meditate’. In other words, you need to be in a relaxed frame of mind to successfully meditate.
This further means that an intense amount of concentration is required to reduce the interference from the overactive mind. This then makes meditation an active process, even though the person doing meditation appears to be passive externally. This may explain why meditation has a similar outcome to doing mental exercises, in terms of improving brain health. Further, the authors note that those who did regular meditation are likely to have had a well-organised and disciplined life.
While this does not permit any sort of definitive conclusion, it raises interesting philosophical and spiritual questions. As already stated, the study does not indicate what type of meditation was carried out by the participants. Ranging from telling beads, to japa (repeating a mantra or God’s name), to tapas (austere meditative practice), to self-inquiry, to stilling the mind, to concentrating on an object, to yoga; meditation means different things to different people of different faiths.
How is one to choose the right method? How does one know if a meditative technique is effective in producing the desired result of improving health?
There are no easy answers to these questions. It may still be a good practice to include meditation among the other activities that are done to improve health. Ultimately it may well come down to commitment on one’s part to keep up the practice, in addition to finding the right meditative technique that suits one’s temperament, constitution and daily life.
It also helps to remember that most meditative practices are aimed at the spirit, rather than the body and mind. For example, the ultimate aim of yoga, as propounded by Patanjali, is to attain the highest spiritual state of nirvikalpa samadhi – a state of blissful union with the supreme self, and not just to reduce weight or stress. Improvements in bodily and mental health are merely the by-products of this path.