Friday—The latest science reveals big benefits of meditation for cognitive decline and to reverse brain impairment.
Cognitive impairment is something most of us experience as we age. It sometimes begins in mid-life around the age of 50, and most commonly over the age of 70, but for some can even begin in our 50s.
If you are experiencing this impairment of brain function, you probably are already aware of it. The science include trouble remembering, struggling to learn new things, and difficulty making everyday decisions.
The good news is that, while we are all likely to suffer from this common ailment at some point, we can use meditation to slow cognitive decline and perhaps even reverse brain impairment.
Research on a Buddhist monk revealed effect of meditation on cognitive decline
The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published an 18-year analysis into the mind of a Buddhist monk.
The research revealed that daily meditation practice slowed his cognitive decline by eight years when compared to a control group.
The longitudinal study began in the 1990s, at the time when renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson [founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds] began talking with the Dalai Lama. Through their discussions, Davidson began to realise the huge benefits of meditation. In particular, Richardson discovered that a health brain led to positive emotions, and vice-versa. This prompted Davidson to begin to investigate the effects of Buddhist meditation techniques.
Davidson was fascinated by Buddhist practices and so began to study them scientifically.”[The Dalai Lama] was really encouraging me to take the practices from this tradition and investigate them with the tools of modern science,” said Davidson. “And if we find through these investigations that these practices are valuable to then disseminate them widely.”
Davidson used MRI and machine learning to estimate brain age
By using MRI and a machine-learning-framework, Davidson began to estimate the “brain age” of the study participants. He and lead scientist Magesh Asluru studied Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, for 18 years.
The objective of the study was to determine whether Rinpoche’s tradition of Buddhist meditation led to a difference between the rate of his cognitive decline and that of novice practitioners. The scans started in 2002, when Rinpoche was just 27. At this age, Rinpoche was already well-versed in meditation, with nine years of practice from meditation retreats. The tests were repeated at 30, 32, and 41 years old.
The last time Rinpoche was studies it was revealed that his brain age was 33—8 years younger than his actual age. He had aged much slower than the control group. The research state that this suggests that there are indeed benefits of meditation for cognitive decline.
Given that the control group and Rinpoche himself have yet to enter the typical age for cognitive decline, the research suggests that meditation could slow brain impairment significantly in later life.
“If these effects accumulate over time, we think there will be very important health and well-being implications.”
What is truly inspiring about this study is the fact that we have the control to effect the rate at which the brain ages. “I think what is exciting is the invitation that we can impact our own brain … and change the rate at which it ages through engaging in practices that are nourishing and helpful for our well-being.”
Best types of meditation for cognitive decline
I wanted to know precisely what the best meditations for cognitive decline are. So, I decided to do some research into Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche to discover what meditation he’s been doing that had slowed his rate of cognitive decline.
I learned that when he was nine years old, his father imparted on him the instructions for Dzogchen and Mahamudra, the Great Perfection and the Great Seal, which are two meditative systems for revealing the nature of the mind.
Mahamudra involves three aspects: stillness, occurrence, and noticing. Stillness means being present-moment-minded, essentially being mindful. We then notice the occurrences of thoughts and feelings. When we notice we are thinking of something we suspend our attention and pull back to the present moment.
Dzogchen begins with Samatha. We meditate on an object to achieve complete stillness. Doing this, the line between stillness and thought vanishes and we achieve Rigpa (pure awareness).
You can learn more about these techniques on LionsRoar.
As well as studying Dzogchen and Mahamudra, Rinpoche studied the Buddhist Middle Way philosophy  and Buddhist logic .
He later left his monastery to become a wandering yogi for four years.
These are the practices that Rinpoche followed principally, the techniques that, according to science, have made his brain younger than his biological age.
The science shows that are practices and lifestyle can have a huge effect on the age of our brain. It is possible to use meditation for cognitive decline, to slow its effects.
It is worth noting, however, that Rinpoche is a very advanced meditator with many years of daily devotion to the practice. Whether the same effects would be observed in more casual meditators remains to be seen.
What do you think about Rinpoche’s story and this scientific research? Leave a comment and remember to subscribe .