The practice of meditation has been a vital part of many healing traditions for thousands of years. Traditionally considered a pathway to enlightenment and inner peace, current research suggests that meditation benefits our bodies, and not just our minds. But what does scientific research say about its impact on seniors? As it turns out, it says quite a lot.
Meditation helps seniors offset many of the mental and physical impacts of aging. For example, meditation counteracts the effects of Alzheimer’s and preserves the brain’s gray matter. It also helps reduce blood pressure, effectively treats chronic pain, and helps minimize sleep problems.
This article will discuss these benefits, and others, using scientific and academic studies to offer some insight into the power of meditation for seniors.
Meditation Offsets the Effects of Alzheimer’s Disease
The New York Academy of Sciences recently published the results of a research project studying the benefits of meditation as a supplementary treatment for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
That project reviewed several prior studies that compared long-term meditators with matched controls who did not meditate. Those studies appeared to demonstrate that meditation may improve cognitive function.
For example, although the control subjects displayed the usual decrease in attention performance, the meditators ended up improving their attention span. Likewise, similar studies suggest that there are meditation-related improvements in memory compared to non-meditators.
Additionally, the results of neuroimaging studies like functional MRIs indicated several changes that support the proposal that meditation may help with attention, memory, and cognition.
Noting that these diseases present a “significant problem for the healthcare system,” the report also held that meditation techniques have the advantage of being inexpensive, and easy to teach and perform.
Meditation May Help Preserve the Brain’s Gray Matter
A similar study by UCLA researchers found that meditation might slow the age-related loss of the brain’s gray matter, the tissue containing neurons.
The researchers specifically looked at the association between age and the brain’s level of gray matter by comparing 50 people who had meditated for several years to 50 individuals who hadn’t. Although both groups exhibited some loss of gray matter, those who meditated regularly lost far less than those who didn’t.
Dr. Florian Kurth, an author of the study, related that the results were surprisingly disparate. According to Kurth, researchers expected to find “rather small and distinct effects” located in some of the brain’s regions. However, instead, they observed “a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
Dr. Eileen Luders, the primary author of the study, concluded that “In that light, it seems essential that longer life expectancies do not come at the cost of reduced quality of life.”
Dr. Luders suggested that other studies were necessary to consider the impact of other factors such as genetics, lifestyle choices, and personality traits.
Meditation Is Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure
Kent State University recently reported that two of their researchers found that mindfulness-based stress reduction, which involves the use of meditation and other mindfulness techniques, can reduce blood pressure.
The two-year study involved 56 adults who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction for eight weeks under the direction of a skilled practitioner. Those participants decreased their blood pressure measurements slightly less than individuals taking blood pressure medication, according to Dr. Hughes.
Joel W. Hughes, Ph.D., and David M. Fresco, Ph.D., reported in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal that mindfulness meditation, combined with light yoga and body awareness, “may be an appropriate complementary treatment” for patients. And, this holds particularly true for individuals seeking alternative approaches to the treatment of hypertension and high blood pressure.
The reasons cited for seeking alternatives to traditional medication include the desire to avoid potential side effects. Additionally, Dr. Hughes noted that patient adherence to medication regimens is weak, and some patients don’t ultimately improve their blood pressure by using pharmaceuticals.
Meditation Is Effective in Treating Chronic Pain
Brian Steiner, M.D., wrote an article for The Atlantic discussing the use of meditation to replace narcotics for the treatment of chronic pain.
As Dr. Steiner reported, research has demonstrated that meditation effectively treats pain, “sometimes significantly.” However, studies have not shown it can cure it.
When researching meditation and chronic pain, scientists ask two questions: “Does meditation alleviate pain?” and “How exactly does it help?”
A study published by the Journal of the American Pain Society in 2009 provided some insight into both questions. That study performed MRIs on 15 volunteers while inducing pain using electrical stimulation.
In the four days that followed, researchers used guided mindfulness meditation intervention for four days and measured the pain ratings reported by participants before and after that intervention. The participants’ pain ratings “significantly decreased after meditation training.”
Additionally, their level of sensitivity to pain, measured by the change in electrical stimulus intensity thresholds, “also decreased after training.” The study also showed about a 40 percent reduction in reported pain intensity during meditation compared to electrical stimulation without meditation.
That study concluded that meditation has the overall effect of reducing pain intensity by activating and reinforcing some regions of the brain used to process pain. Other theories exist regarding how meditation reduces pain. However, research in that area is ongoing.
Meditation Helps Reduce Sleep Problems Among Seniors
A study by the University of Southern California found that older adults who were experiencing problems sleeping encountered more relief using a meditation program compared to a control group using a group-based sleep hygiene education program.
Additionally, the research indicated that in addition to sleep, mindfulness meditation has a positive effect on psychological conditions resulting from poor sleep patterns like depression.
David Black, Ph.D., the corresponding author of the study, stated that “meditation appears to have clinical importance by serving to reduce sleep problems among… older adults,” adding that, “this effect on sleep appears to carry over into reducing daytime fatigue and depression symptoms.”
Meditation May Improve Immune Response
When humans encounter disease-carrying organisms and viruses, their bodies send out immune cells to help fight disease and infection. Those cells include anti-inflammatory proteins, immunoglobulins, neutrophil, and T-cells.
The University of California, Berkeley, reported that several recent studies, including one published by Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that meditation appeared to increase T-cell levels of patients with breast cancer or HIV. This finding suggests that meditation might play a role in fighting cancer and other diseases that attack immune cells.
In another study published by Digestion Magazine in 2014, colitis patients exhibited an increased immune response after taking a mindfulness meditation course.
Meditation May Reduce Cell Aging
Cell aging naturally occurs as the result of cells repeatedly dividing over their lifespan. Proteins found at the end of chromosomes called telomeres are there to protect them from the effects of aging.
Scientific studies suggest that individuals who have meditated for several years may have longer telomeres, which results in reduced cellular aging.
An experimental study published by the American Cancer Society in 2014 suggested that breast cancer survivors who went through mindfulness-based stress reduction, including meditation, may benefit from better-preserved telomeres than individuals not receiving that therapy.
However, studies are ongoing regarding the impact of meditation on cellular aging.
What We Learned Today
We hope you like our article on the benefits of meditation for seniors. Today we learned that meditation could have a positive effect on physical, mental, and emotional health. Additionally, it can offset many of the effects of aging.
It is encouraging to know that something that can be learned and practiced rather easily can have such an impact on our health as we get older. And that is a great reason to give meditation a try.
If you found this article helpful, you might consider passing it along to others who might benefit from the information it contains.
- Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Meditation and neurodegenerative diseases
- UCLA Newsroom: Forever young: Meditation might slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain
- Kent State University: Meditation Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure
- Psychosomatic Medicine: Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Prehypertension
- The Atlantic: Treating Chronic Pain With Meditation
- National Library of Medicine: The Effects of Brief Mindfulness Meditation Training on Experimentally Induced Pain
- University of California, Berkeley: Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation Is Good for Your Health
- National Library of Medicine: Mindfulness Meditation Training Effects on CD4+ T Lymphocytes
- National Library of Medicine: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Patients With Inactive Ulcerative Colitis
- American Cancer Society: Mindfulness‐based cancer recovery and supportive‐expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors
- University of Southern California: A New Sleep Study May Open Your Eyes to Meditation
- University of California, Berkeley: Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation Is Good for Your Health
- Harvard Medical School: What Meditation Can Do for Your Mind, Mood, and Health
- University of Pennsylvania: The Benefits of Positive Psychology and Mindfulness for Older Adults