The Benefits of Meditation for Cognition

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN

When I think of meditation, my mind still initially goes to a person sitting cross legged on a big jewel toned pouf. The smell of incense and sounds of gongs and relaxing chanting comes to mind. Obviously, this is not what meditation has to look like (or smell like or sound like). In fact, the practice of meditation has, in the last decade or so, become relatively mainstream. What was once considered by many to be a ‘woo-woo’ eastern and alternative practice, is now talked about freely and in some cases, even recommended by conventional healthcare practitioners (and for good reason).
Many of us have personal experience meditating, whether in the flow of yoga, as an act of prayer, or perhaps as part of a personal ritual. The practice of meditation is the epitome of counter culture when juxtaposed with our never ending, on-the-go world. But this is why regular meditation is so important for health and wellness. Meditation is an extremely important part of a healthy lifestyle, but for those striving to prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease and optimize cognitive health, meditation is a necessary component of a health promoting lifestyle.

What is meditation?

At its most basic meaning, meditation is simply being in the moment. Meditation is a way to calm our mind and body from our fast-paced culture and bring mindfulness into our internal space. There are many different types of meditation. Some involve chanting, some involve focusing on a particular mantra or phrase, some are just the focused process of clearing your mind. Anyone and everyone can have a meditation practice- you don’t need to be a yogi or a meditation expert to reap the boundless benefits.

The Benefits of Meditation

Chronic stress, which is ubiquitous in our modern lifestyle, is a contributor to all of the chronic diseases of aging. Chronic stress, even chronic mild stress, creates a perfect storm in the brain. It takes a massive toll on the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which creates devastating imbalances in hormone levels. This hormonal chaos can often result in tiredness and fatigue, brain fog, and lack of motivation. Even more frightening, is the direct impact that chronic stress has on the brain. Research shows that chronic stress results in a decrease in neurogenesis (1). What that means is that when we live in this neverending state of underlying stress, our body loses its ability to make new brain cells. Slowing down brain cell generation can lead to cognitive decline- and the result is even more devastating in a brain that is already suffering from problems with cognition.

The mindfulness component to meditation has shown to reduce chronic stress. Scientists have measured the ability of meditation to reduce the effects of chronic stress by assessing telomere length. Telomeres are small structures on either end of our chromosomes, almost like the little pieces of plastic on the ends of our shoelaces. These telomeres shorten as we age, but unlike our chronological age, telomere length is a reflection of our cellular age. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Research shows that individuals who deal with significant stress have shortened telomeres, regardless of chronological age, meaning that on a cellular level they are older. Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase telomerase, the enzyme that increases telomere length, which indicates a slowing of the aging process and a reduction in cellular senescence (2). What’s amazing about telomeres is that they have the ability to grow back- reversing the aging process. Imagine what people would do if they found a way to reverse their chronological age? People would go crazy! Yet, reversing cellular age is so much more impactful, and something as simple as regular meditation can do do just that! (3)
From a strictly brain health standpoint, meditation has been proven to increase BDNF, or brain derived neurotrophic factor (4). BDNF stimulates the formation of new brain cells, so it basically has the opposite effect that chronic stress has on the brain, as mentioned above. BDNF and the ability of the brain to create new brain cells is a major component of neuroplasticity- the brain’s unique capability to change and grow in response to damage. Recovery from Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological setbacks like stroke are the result of the brain’s incredible plasticity.

How to Practice Meditation

Ideally, we should practice meditation every day. How long you practice is up to you. You can meditate for as little as one minute between meetings at work, or you could go to a meditation class and be guided through a meditation for 45 minutes. If you aren’t ready to dive into meditation through classes and you aren’t sure how to get started on your own, download one of the many meditation apps available for smartphones. Many of them are free, so you can download a few and try them out to see what you like best.

The main takeaway here is that you absolutely should be meditating. The benefits for your brain are just too good to pass up. On top of that- anyone can do it! As you get started, make sure you reserve your judgement. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. Berating yourself every time your mind wanders will not help you reduce your stress level. So as always, practice loving kindness and start meditating!

References:

  1. de Andrade, J.S., Céspedes, I.C., Abrão R.O., dos Santos, T.B., Diniz, L., Britto, L.R.G., Spadari-Bratfisch, R.C., Ortolani D., Melo-Thomas, L., da Silva, R.C.B., & Viana, M.B. (2013). Chronic unpredictable mild stress alters an anxiety-related defensive response, Fos immunoreactivity and hippocampal adult neurogenesis. Behavioral Brain Research, 250, 81-90.
  2. Schutte, N.S. & Malouff, J.M. (2014). A meta-analytic review of the effects of mindfulness meditation on telomerase activity. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 42: 45-48.
  3. Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J.T., Folkman, S., & Blackburn, E. (2009). Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172 (1), 34-53.
  4. Cahn, B. R., Goodman, M. S., Peterson, C. T., Maturi, R., & Mills, P. J. (2017). Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression after a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 315.