There are a number of factors linked to increased risks of declining brain health and even dementia. Get the latest information free by subscribing to; Dementia Help and Advice (DHA)
Dementia prevention podcast: how to reduce the risks
The first Dementia Help and Advice (DHA) podcast is out now, it explains some of the leading factors linked with brain health, many correlated with increased/decreased risks of developing dementia. Cognitive decline begins before 30 and signs are normally evident by the age of 45, lifestyle and environmental factors are regarded as having an influential role to play in maintaining a healthy brain.
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Reflecting on my time spent with regular meditators and participants in meditation experiments I noted several differences between the groups. Participants in scientific studies are generally university students so they tend to be younger, healthier and better educated than the average spiritual practitioner. But alongside trendier clothes and even trendier phones the strongest impression of what separates the meditators from the participants is happiness. Generalisations are not necessarily the most reliable way of understanding cause and effect, I have known grumpy meditators, miserable Buddhists and extremely happy university students. However most of my experience as a meditator has been spent with people who enjoyed living.
“If you need more happiness in your life you should think about meditating, if you meditate or practice mindfulness and don’t feel any happier you should review your practice.”
Let’s be clear, the link between meditation and happiness isn’t a new idea, we have known for a long time that meditation and mindfulness can reduce self reported levels of depression and anxiety. It should also be pointed out that most meditation experiments are short term projects, whereas regular meditators may have decades of daily practice behind them. But when you think about it, any meditation method used by Buddhists or inspired by Buddhist teachings (such as mindfulness) has one primary goal, to reduce suffering and therefore increase happiness. Meditation isn’t magic, it can’t pay your mortgage, make your boss a nicer person or stop your neighbours playing loud music in the night. But by developing a greater sense of social inclusion and happiness, it seems that meditators tend to create and experience less friction in their day to day lives. They can often diffuse negative situations and naturally gravitate towards productive, beneficial engagement. I’m not talking about the initial sense of euphoria that often grips new meditators in the first few weeks of practice, rather the deep seated sense of joy and contentment that often comes with long term meditation.
There’s a lot to be said for happiness ‘for it’s own sake’, going to a meditation class with the expectation of having all concerns lifted off my shoulders is something I’ve enjoyed for decades. Over time the feeling of happiness experienced in meditation seeps into everyday life and eventually becomes a semi-permanent state of mind. Alongside the cognitive impact of meditation methods that are of interest to psychologists, the meditator’s sense of joy plays out, often unnoticed. But I wonder to what extent can we attribute the health benefits of meditation to simple everyday happiness as well as the more narrow functional changes that meditation and mindfulness create in the brain?
Several features in the media this week have giving some clear indications about the science behind keeping our brains in the best possible shape. Some of the advice falls into the generic wellbeing wisdom which now seems to be be associated with most health messages;
eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, consume less processed meat
take regular exercise
give up smoking
stay socially engaged
avoid stress, relax and sleep the right amount
keep the brain working with appropriate activity and brain training
The last item on this wish list is unsettlingly vague given that it probably has the most significant impact on brain health. For example how can we define brain training (as almost everything we do can train the brain)? What is an appropriate level of activity and which parts of the brain should we focus on?
“In one study the brains of regular meditators were found to be years younger than non meditators”
In today’s Guardian, attention was drawn to a key finding of the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging; that typically lifestyle and environment are more influential in our quality and length of life than genetic factors. This is also the general direction that brain science seems to be moving in with regards neurodegeneration. That although there are many questions left to be answered, limiting cognitive decline and reducing the risk of dementia may rest largely in our own hands.
Returning to the question of brain training, the big issue is to establish what kinds of intervention bring the greatest overall benefit? It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrow single task training such as Sudoku or word searches have a limited effect. Whereas maintaining high levels of brain activity and cognitive challenge are likely to keep a much broader area of the cortex young and healthy. The same principle needs to be applied if meditation systems are being used to maintain cognitive function. That the meditation or mindfulness method should be broad based and able to tap into both the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (task or external) networks. Activity in and between different neural networks is a key element in brain health and one frequently overlooked and poorly understood. To illustrate consider tonglen meditation, it combines compassion, nondual awareness and mindfulness, it allows the meditator to work with our internal visualisation and empathy systems. In addition it engages the important connectivity between introspection and external awareness.
Given what we know already about neurodegeneration, it seems likely that long term protection against cognitive impairment can be found in meditation methods built on nondual compassionate approaches.
No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.
How to protect your brain from dementia
This is not a simple question and there isn’t just one answer. Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms from a number of different illnesses, so different forms of dementia may require alternative approaches. However an article about how Jessica Langbaum keeps her brain young makes some points that we all can learn from. Jessica is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, so she knows a thing or two about reducing the risk of developing dementia.
There is an enduring belief that activities such as Sudoku or app based brain training can offer some benefit is the battle against neurodegeneration. But Dr Langbaum makes the point that any exercise as narrow in scope as single task brain training is probably too limited to be of significant benefit. So that while Soduko for example, might help to keep the parts of the brain linked to simple calculations in good working order, this may offer little protection against Alzheimer’s dementia. The presumption is that maintaining large areas of brain function at high levels of performance is likely to keep overall brain health for longer. This idea is often described at the use it or lose it hypothesis, that once we start to scale down the demands on our brain we may unwittingly increase the risks of permanently losing function and structure.
“regular meditators have been observed to have both younger brains and thicker cortex than non-meditators”
The use it or lose it approach isn’t an ultimate answer but it does give us some great signposts about how to maintain brain health. I have often considered that continued use of meditation into middle and old age by Buddhists may be directly linked to the anecdotal evidence suggesting lower rates of dementia in certain groups of meditators. Many long term Buddhists increase their meditation practice in retirement and can frequently be found working for a range of good causes in voluntary and paid capacities, even at advanced ages. There is research that suggests spiritual practice per se might have a preservative effect on cognitive function but I think we must also consider the more direct influence of meditation methods on the regular renewal of brain function and structure.
Many well established Buddhist meditation practices such as tonglen have been designed as mind training systems. Their original goal was almost certainly not to reduce the risks of dementia, but they have long been associated with increasing wisdom, clarity and compassion. From the neuroscience point of view this means the methods are linked to activity in several of the most important brain networks, such as those connected to empathy, memory, attention, visualization and planning. This is specifically why Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) has been developed with reference to reliable traditional methods and is also supported with research from neuroimaging and cognitive psychology.
The best advice we can offer to reduce your risks of developing dementia is to,
start early, cognitive decline begins in our late 20s
keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
stay socially engaged
stay physically active
watch your diet
try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing
Photo of girl on swing by Artem Bali on Pexels.com, photo of Buddha statue by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com
Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.
Looking for the three secrets to meaningful meditation?
Traditionally obtaining long lasting results from meditation practice can take years. Famously H.H. the Dalai Lama advised Buddhist meditators to assess their progress over a five year period. This kind of long term investment challenges modern notions of what self transformation might be and how quickly individuals should expect to reach their meditation goals. As such both new and experienced meditators are increasingly looking for help, advice and tips to allow them to maximize the time they spend in meditation. As an experienced meditation practitioner, teacher and now researcher, I have reviewed much of the published evidence to offer you the three secrets of meditation.
The three secrets to successful meditation and mindfulness
Do some research – understand your goals, find a reliable method and teacher.
Start – unless you start you won’t get anywhere.
Keep going – perseverance is probably the most important quality needed in a meditator.
At first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are generic and not really that helpful, however just pause for a moment to consider them. From my own experience the single biggest mistake people make when they decide that they want to meditate is to not consider fully what they want to achieve and which approach would be most useful. Generally speaking meditation can have a number of short term transient benefits, for example an improvement in self reported well being. But how long do you have to meditate to get the short term benefits and what comes after the initial ‘feel good’ phase? I’m not suggesting for a moment that meditators need to access scientific studies, but you should have some general ideas of what you want to learn and who should be teaching you.
Traditionally the biggest meditation mistake is described as not starting, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it is wasted potential. Traditional forms of meditation have been shown to help with everything from smoking cessation to lowering the risks of developing dementia. Once the basic skill of ‘sitting’ has been acquired a whole range of methods become instantly more accessible. Consider that ‘not starting’ doesn’t mean simply never to have tried meditation but also not to have given it a chance. It can take a few sessions to achieve any real benefit, particularly is your mind is typically ‘busy’ and you find it difficult to put down the worries of your day to day life. Many people feel the benefits of meditation after the first lesson, it might take others a bit longer. A good teacher will be able to help if you are unsure about your progress. A simple analogy is that of learning to drive a car, many people pause driving lessons after a few hours training, disheartened by the challenge. There is an initial ‘biting point’ for people at the start of the meditation journey, if you haven’t reached it you haven’t really started to meditate.
Most meditators who practice two or three times a week can gain great benefit. They may work to change negative and limiting behaviours, address mental or physical health problems, feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin and take more control over their thought processes. But progress fluctuates and if you meditate for any length of time sooner or later you will feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. This impatience is natural and simply reflects resistance to change, many people put their meditation on hold at this point. Sometimes people do return to the practice but this might be many months or even years later. Consider that ultimately regular meditation leads to functional and structural change in the brain, if you don’t maintain the behaviour linked to the change, neural connections may weaken and you can go back to square one. It might feel like you have all that previous meditation related change still inside you but this probably isn’t the case. If it feels like you need a break, a change of practice might be more beneficial than stopping altogether. It should always be stressed that if you think a meditation method is having a negative impact on you, stop it immediately.
With each specific form of meditation a skillful teacher or experienced student will be able to offer advice, but specific help will be linked to your own experience and the nature of the practice. For example some traditional practices are more suited to the morning or evening or are not suitable for beginners or people taking medication. How you sit, breath and when you last ate might influence the quality of your meditation. Consider that most traditional meditation methods have been used by tens of millions of people for hundreds of years so there is a lot of useful information out there.
Why do people meditate? You might be surprised by the answer.
Want to know why people meditate?
Having introduced hundreds of people to meditation over the last fifteen years, the question of why do people meditate has always fascinated me. When I used to teach traditional Buddhist meditation many people would declare an interest in Buddhism or spirituality, but there was generally another reason that encouraged them to come to a class. Many came because they wanted some support with a health problem, either mental or physical and they thought that Buddhist meditation could offer them something. People attended classes to accompany their friends or because they were suffering a sense of loss, or were looking for direction in their life. But only a small minority meditated because they wanted to become a Buddhist or for some kind of spiritual development.
So interested was I in this question that I undertook some research while at the university, running a project asking people about their reasons for starting meditation. Health and wellbeing proved to be the single most popular answer both for traditional practitioners and secular mindfulness students, accounting for 55% of respondents. Although it now appears widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to increased levels of self reported happiness how this is achieved is still somewhat obscured. In particular if meditation has a lasting effect on behaviour then it must have a role in maintaining/changing brain structure and function.
“regular meditators with younger brains than non meditators”
This is the new frontier for contemporary meditation research, how does meditation change the brain and what are the likely effects of it? Evidence is suggestive that meditation can make a positive impact on your overall brain health and in one study regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non-meditators. The point is that meditation’s real potential is in changing brain structure, this is particularly relevant when talking about, the ageing brain, mild cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. We are starting to see the first wave of meditation methods specifically designed to allow people to improve brain health generally. Given the pessimistic predictions surrounding dementia this seems like a trend set to continue.
Meditation for seniors. Meditation supports a healthy brain at any age.
Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain
Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) is a simple system developed by meditation expert and trained neuroscientist Stephen Gene Morris. It offers methods designed to improve brain health and slow down the rate of cognitive (brain) decline. Aspects of our brain function such as memory and attention begin to deteriorate in our late 20s, however most of us don’t start to notice any changes until we reach our 40s. The point of BRM is that there are a number of things we can do to slow or perhaps even reverse aspects of cognitive decline at any point in our lives, even at 60, 70 or 80. If you have the capacity to concentrate there is a good chance that you can make a positive impact on your brain’s function and structure.
Meditation is probably the single most useful thing a person can do to help maintain brain health. There are hundreds of scientific studies that show an effect on cognitive performance linked to regular meditation. A key point to make is that different forms of meditation lead to different effects. BRM draws together elements of compassion, nondual and mindfulness meditation into one integrated practice. It is a secular practice which requires no previous experience of meditation, it can be undertaken sitting in any chair that allows you to keep your back straight. It can be practiced in a traditional meditation class or through online training in your own home.
Almost all of the evidence from neuroscience, psychology and traditional meditation systems points to our ability to improve our own brain function throughout our lives. For example a major strategic review of research into strategy-based cognitive training in older adults, strongly indicated than brain function can be enhanced even in middle and old age. The crucial point is that no mater what your age your brain remains plastic and can adapt to the demands of brain training in many forms, particularly meditation.
Follow this link for more information about BRM and how you can join a class.