From apps like Headspace to Buddhify popping up left and right, meditation appears to be rising in popularity and hitting mainstream America. However, only 8 percent of adults in the U.S. meditate, as reported in 2017.
Yet researchers continue to study how the ancient practice, an act of mindfulness intended to still the chatty mind, affects the brain, stress levels, and one’s overall health, making the case that it can have a lasting impact on one’s quality of life.
In a recent and notable study, “Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training” published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers found more evidence to suggest that meditating has the potential to prevent age-related mental decline and increase one’s attention span. The study is the most extensive longitudinal study to date, according to researchers, and examines how meditation increases a person’s ability to focus--especially later in life, so as long as the meditation practice continues.
“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,” the authors write.
As the study explains, age-related cognitive decline typically includes the inability to sustain attention over time. However, meditation practices have been shown to have an impact one one's attention span.
“Meditation based trainings have been shown to temper transient lapses in attention that disrupt ongoing task performance,” the study explains.
The study started when participants were taken on a meditation retreat in 2007. Right after the retreat, those who attended displayed improvements in attention and their abilities to deal with stress. Researchers continued to follow up with the participants at six and 18 months, and then seven years later--which is what the new findings are based on.
“We observed no significant changes in response inhibition accuracy across the 7-year follow-up interval, and improvements were maintained above half the level of overall training gains for several years following the end of retreat,” the study states. “Furthermore, aging-related performance deficits were moderated by continued meditation practice: older participants who reported engaging in more meditation practice following formal training demonstrated attenuated aging-related performance deficits.”
The study concludes that an ongoing meditation practice can likely impact one’s attention span over a lifetime, which can provide interesting insights for conversations about how to implement meditation practice into our lives as we age.
“Continued meditation practice seems to be associated with substantial experiential and developmental influences on practitioners’ attentional capacities over the lifespan,” the study explains. “These findings have broad implications for meditation and mindfulness-based approaches to cognitive training and raise important questions regarding the limits of meditation practice on the plasticity of human cognition.”
Of course, other factors can influence these findings, but this study is one of many suggesting that meditation can positively affect one’s attention span. Other studies have suggested that it can decrease stress and anxiety.
Meditation can look different for different people as there are many different ways to find one's zen. Indeed, there’s walking meditation, sitting meditation, a candle meditation technique and more. As the 14th Dalai Lama, who is a dedicated meditation practitioner, once shared, meditation is all simply about "keeping the mind clear.”
“Meditation is about keeping the mind clear; thinking deeply about reality. It’s about thinking about our emotions, asking ourselves ‘Why do I feel angry?’ and coming to understand the advantages and sound basis of positive emotions like warm-heartedness,” he shared on Twitter.