Study: Meditating can help you focus and keep your brain young

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If you're worried about your dwindling attention span or what might happen to your brain as you get older, consider picking up meditation.

The most extensive longitudinal study to date on how meditation improves your ability to focus was just published last month in Springer's Journal of Cognitive Enhancement and suggests that meditating has "the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person's life."

In other words, it could prevent age-related mental decline.

"This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention," lead author Anthony Zanesco, a psychologist at the University of Miami, and his colleagues report in the seven-year study.

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The experiment began in 2011 when Zanesco, then at the University of California, Davis, and his colleagues assessed participants, who ranged from from 22 to 69-years-old, before and after they attended a three-month retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. The participants underwent various types of meditation training, such as sustaining focus on objects, practicing mindful breathing techniques and generating positive feelings of compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy and equanimity for others and themselves.

The immediate findings from the study, published after that retreat, revealed that the training enhanced the participants' emotional well-being and led them to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.

Seven years later, when researchers checked back in with the group, all of the participants reported that they continued to meditate in some capacity, and evaluations showed that their mental improvements held up for the most part.

In fact, the more they meditated, the better they maintained the benefits of that training seven years prior. That was especially true for the older participants.

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As far back as 2007, experiments have demonstrated that those who meditate are better at paying attention. Before that, a study showed how meditation changes the brain, expanding regions associated with focused attention. A more recent finding highlighted by the New York Times showed that just three days of mindful meditation — paying close attention to the tactile sensations of your own body — strengthens the connection between areas in your brain related to focus and those that process reactions to stress.

It's these benefits that have led many companies — including Google, Target and Intel — to offer employees meditation and mindfulness training to cope with stress and improve productivity, Harvard Business Review reports.

And now this recent finding out of UC Davis suggests that intensive meditation training can provide you with cognitive benefits, which, as long as you keep practicing, last a long time.

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