Meditation Retreats

Daily meditation could slow the aging process in your brain, says one study


Meditation while being sheltered in place can not only help you deal with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it can even save your brain from aging.

A recently published 18-year analysis of a Buddhist monk’s mind by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds found that daily intense meditation slowed the aging of the monk’s brain by up to eight years compared to a control group.

The project began in the 1990s with neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s relationship with the Dalai Lama. Davidson began making connections between positive emotions and brain health, which fueled research for the study.

“[The Dalai Lama] really encouraged me to take the practices from that tradition and explore them with the tools of modern science, ”said Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. “And if we find in these investigations that these practices are valuable in order to disseminate them widely.”

Using MRI and a machine learning framework that estimates “brain age” from brain imaging, Davidson and senior scientist Nagesh Adluru studied the mind of Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche for 18 years.

The goal, Davidson said, was to find out if there was a difference in the rate of aging between the brains of experienced meditation masters and those who were beginners. Rinpoche was first scanned in 2002 at the age of 27. At this point he had already completed meditation retreats for nine years. It was scanned again at the age of 30, 32 and 41, respectively.

The last time he was scanned, he had just returned from a four and a half year traveling retreat, and his brain was estimated to be 33 years, eight years younger than his biological age.

The researchers compared Rinpoche’s aging brain to a control group, and his appeared to be aging much more slowly than the general focus group.

The extent of the effect is pronounced even with an error rate of plus or minus two to three years, said Davidson.

“If these effects pile up over time, we think it will have very important health and well-being implications.”

Everyone, especially now amid the coronavirus pandemic, can benefit from meditation because it is meant to remind us of our own basic goodness, Davidson said.

“I think the exciting thing is the invitation that we can influence our own brain … and change the rate of its aging by engaging in practices that are nourishing and beneficial to our wellbeing.”

The researchers said they are excited to see how Rinpoche’s brain will develop and how this data can help improve overall well-being.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Nagesh Adluru’s name.

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