Sustain Your Brain

Attending the funeral of a dear older friend, I discovered that she’d been diagnosed with dementia prior to suffering the stroke that ultimately caused her death. Knowing that this lovely, intelligent lady had faced the debilitating effects of dementia coupled with a stroke made her death all the sadder for me. 

The brain plays an essential role in our overall physical and mental health. It is connected to all other organs, structures and systems of our bodies, keeping us breathing, regulating heart rate and coordinating the functions of our digestive and immune systems. But as we get older, we are at greater risk for cognitive decline as a result of chronic stress, poor sleep and the buildup of plaques and tangles in the brain. That is why, in addition to diet and exercise, it is crucial to sustain and care for our cognitive health. One tool for maintaining cognitive health is meditation. 

Scientists agree that meditation is the number one brain changer. Due to advances in neuroscience, we now know that meditation actually changes the physical structure of our brains. Here are some ways meditation alters the brain—

Increases gray matter – Stress impacts our physical and mental health and can have a detrimental effect on the brain. Studies suggest that the brains of meditators are less reactive to stress. Scans show an increase of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain associated with executive function and reasoning, while also shrinking the amygdala, the fight-or-flight center of our brains. Meditation weakens the functional connectivity between these two parts of the brain so we are less reactive to stress. Meditation also appears to strengthen the connections between brain areas associated with attention and concentration. 

Balances right and left sides of the brain – A 2012 UCLA School of Medicine study found that the corpus callosum, the cable-like nerves that link the two hemispheres of the brain and relay information from one hemisphere to the other, was remarkably stronger, thicker and more well-connected in meditation practitioners. Better communication between brain hemispheres is associated with greater creativity as well as increased cognitive “brain power.”

Strengthens our memory center – Researchers have observed that the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, increases in neural thickness, density and overall size in meditators. A larger, stronger hippocampus serves to enhance memory and learning as well as improve spatial sense. These same changes to the hippocampus also makes us less vulnerable to depression. 

Stimulates our brain’s “pleasure” center – Brain imaging studies show that when we engage in acts of charity or compassion, our brain’s “pleasure center” lights up. Similarly, meditation activates this part of the brain. Since our brain can be strengthened like a muscle, the more we act out of kindness, the kinder and more compassionate we become, increasing our sense of well-being, connectedness to others. Additionally, it has the added health benefits of alleviating anxiety, lifting depression, strengthening immunity, increasing longevity and reducing chronic pain.

With all these benefits of strengthening our overall cognitive health and rewiring our brains for happiness, peace and success, I’d encourage you to start a meditation practice if you don’t already have one. I’ll be offering ideas for starting and maintaining a mediation practice in future posts. Hope you stay tuned!