Regular and intensive meditation sessions over the course of a lifetime could help a person remain attentive and focused well into old age. This is according to the most extensive longitudinal study to date examining a group of meditation practitioners. The research evaluates the benefits that people gained after three months of full-time meditation training and whether these benefits are maintained seven years later. Lead author Anthony Zanesco, now at the University of Miami in the US, however, cautions that further research is needed before meditation can be advocated as a sure-fire method for countering the effects of ageing on the brain.
This study follows up on previous work by the same group of researchers at the University of California – Davis in 2011, which assessed the cognitive abilities of 30 people who regularly meditated before and after they went on a three-month-long retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Meditation Centre in the US.
At the centre, they meditated daily using techniques designed to foster calm sustained attention on a chosen object and to generate aspirations such as compassion, loving-kindness, emphatic joy and equanimity among participants, for others and themselves. During this time, another group of 30 people who regularly meditated were also monitored. Other than traveling to the meditation centre for a week-long assessment period, they carried on with their lives as normal. After the first group’s initial retreat was over, the second group received similar intensive training at the Shambhala Mountain Centre.
As part of this study, follow-up assessments were conducted six months, eighteen months and seven years after completion of the retreats. During the last appraisal, participants were asked to estimate how much time over the course of seven years they had spent meditating outside of formal retreat settings, such as through daily or non-intensive practice. The forty participants who had remained in the study all reported some form of continued meditation practice: 85% attended at least one meditation retreat, and they practiced amounts on average that were comparable to an hour a day for seven years.
The participants again completed assessments designed to measure their reaction time and ability to pay attention to a task. Although these did not improve, the cognitive gains accrued after the 2011 training and assessment were partially maintained many years later. This was especially true for older participants who practiced a lot of meditation over the seven years. Compared to those who practiced less, they maintained cognitive gains and did not show typical patterns of age-related decline in sustained attention.
“This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person’s life,” says Zanesco.
He is aware that participants’ lifestyle or personality might have contributed to the observations. Zanesco therefore calls for further research into meditation as an intervention to improve brain functioning among older people.
He says the current findings also provide a sobering appraisal of whether short-term or non-intensive mindfulness interventions are helpful to improve sustained attention in a lasting manner. Participants practiced far more meditation than is feasible for shorter-term programmes that might aim to help with cognitive ageing, and despite practicing that much meditation, participants did not generally improve over years; these benefits instead plateaued. Zanesco believes this has broad implications for meditation and mindfulness-based approaches to cognitive training and raises important questions regarding how much meditation can, in fact, influence human cognition and the workings of the brain.
Sustained attention is effortful, demanding, and subject to limitations associated with age-related cognitive decline. Researchers have sought to examine whether attentional capacities can be enhanced through directed mental training, with a number of studies now offering evidence that meditation practice may facilitate generalized improvements in this domain. However, the extent to which attentional gains are maintained following periods of dedicated meditation training and how such improvements are moderated by processes of aging have yet to be characterized. In a prior report (Sahdra et al., Emotion 11, 299–312, 2011), we examined attentional performance on a sustained response inhibition task before, during, and after 3-months of full-time meditation. We now extend this prior investigation across additional follow-up assessments occurring up to 7 years after the conclusion of training. Performance improvements observed during periods of intensive practice were partially maintained several years later. Importantly, aging-related decrements in measures of response inhibition accuracy and reaction time variability were moderated by levels of continued meditation practice across the follow-up period. The present study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across the lifespan.
Anthony P Zanesco, Brandon G King, Katherine A MacLean, Clifford D Saron