Meditate Your Way to a Younger Brain

As much as we might like to deny it, aging takes a toll on our brains. Just like our bodies lose muscle mass, our brains begin to lose volume as we get older, for example. This causes our neurons—the cells that make up the brain and nervous system—to communicate with each other more slowly, decreasing our speed of thinking.

While you can’t push your brain to go for a jog or lift weights, you can help it stay fit and even counteract the effects of aging—and practicing meditation can be a powerful part of your effort. Meditation is a way to take advantage of the brain’s ability to change and grow, known as neuroplasticity. In fact, “Your brain volume increases with meditation,” explains Nicola Finley, M.D., a physician at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “The practice can also decrease the negative effect of stress on the brain.”

Researchers are finding that this ancient tradition, which has already been recognized as a means to reduce stress, blood pressure and fatigue, among other benefits, is also an important part of an overall stay-sharp plan. Meditation can make it easier to think, focus, create new memories and retain cognition well into your old age. And it has recently become known as a powerful means for decreasing your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Here’s how:

  • Meditating slows shrinkage of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory that usually loses volume with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  • Meditating increases gray matter and cortical thickness in the brain, which slows the aging process. Increased gray matter can help with attention span and the management of emotions, while cortical thickness is associated with memory and decision-making.
  • Meditating increases alpha brain waves, which are responsible for sustained attention.
  • Meditating lowers cortisol levels, which can help sharpen your memory and ability to concentrate. Chronic stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol in your brain, making it more difficult to create new memories and recall past ones. High stress levels also up your risk for mild cognitive impairment (which can lead to dementia) and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Meditating decreases feelings of loneliness, which is common in those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

How to Meditate for Your Brain

Making meditation part of your brain-fitness plan doesn’t require a huge time commitment—studies show that as little as 15 minutes per day can significantly slow your mental decline, and even less has payoffs.

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We know, though, that even this may seem daunting. One thing to keep in mind is that just about anything can be turned into a meditative activity. “If a guest says to me, ‘I can’t even imagine sitting down for 10 minutes,’ then I suggest trying walking meditation,” Dr. Finely says (more on this below). “Even the rhythm of petting your dog or cat can be meditative.”

Here are some ways you can incorporate meditation into your day. And don’t worry if your mind wanders to housework or pending bills during your practice—that’s perfectly normal. The trick is to gently redirect your thoughts to the present.

Breathing meditation:

This basic practice, in which you concentrate entirely on breathing, is perfect for beginners and may provide a foundation for other types of meditation. It will help train your brain to tune out distractions and focus on one task at a time. Try it by focusing on your breath for a full two to five minutes (as with all meditation, you can work up to 15 minutes or more over time). Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Concentrate on the sound and sensation of your breath as you inhale and exhale. If your attention wanders, gently return it to the task at hand.

Mindfulness meditation:

An essential part of Buddhist tradition, mindful meditation focuses on bringing your attention to the present moment—whether you’re folding laundry or taking a shower. “Whatever you’re doing, you can do it mindfully,” Dr. Finley says. Having a heightened awareness of the here and now allows you to put aside thoughts of the past and future. A study in the journal Emotion found that just 12 minutes of mindful meditation can improve a person’s working memory—the part of your short-term memory responsible for managing information, controlling emotions and problem solving. Dr. Finley recommends starting with one or more daily tasks. “As you perform them, tune out the world around you and direct your attention to the fullness of the experience, without judgment or words,” she says. “What do you smell, taste, feel, hear and see?”

Walking meditation:

The simple act of placing one foot in front of the other can turn into a powerful brain-boosting activity. Move slowly and concentrate on your legs and feet—how your soles hit the ground, how your calves and knees feel as you lift your foot, how your weight shifts, how the floor creaks with each step. Walking itself has been found to have its own brain-boosting benefits: According to a study from the University of Illinois, hoofing it for 40 minutes three times a week can improve memory and combat age-related cognitive decline.

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Body-scan meditation:

Try this method before bed to shut-off those creeping thoughts about tomorrow’s to-do list.  Lie in bed with your eyes closed and focus intently on each part of your body. Beginning at your feet, slowly work upward, moving from your toes to your head. Envision the blood flowing through your entire body. Concentrate on the areas where you have pain or hold the most tension, and try to relax them.

Whichever method of meditation you choose to support your brain health, Dr. Finley encourages meditating around the same time each day. “When we do something at the same time it becomes a habit,” she explains. “Just like when you sit down in your car and put on the seatbelt, we want this to become second nature.”