The study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting meditation keeps the mind healthy
It adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting the ancient practice helps keep the mind healthy.
But the best results were seen in older adults who managed 60 minutes a day over the course of many years.
They maintained cognitive gains and did not show typical patterns of age-related mental decline.
Psychologist Dr Anthony Zanesco said their was a significant improvement in attention and memory tests compared to those who practiced less, or not at all.
He said: “Observed during periods of intensive practice were partially maintained several years later.”
Previous research has suggested meditating slows the onset of dementia.
But the latest findings question the effectiveness of short-term or non intensive meditation based mindfulness interventions championed by Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities.
Dr Zanesco said his extensive research is the first to show meditation really can have a long lasting effect on cognitive abilities.
But it needs to be intensive, with people keeping them up over a long period of time.
Dr Zanesco said: “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.”
He said regular and intensive sessions over the course of a lifetime could maintain attention and focus well into old age.
The longest and most extensive meditation study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement evaluated the benefits people gained after three months of full time meditation training – and whether they were maintained seven years later.
Dr Zanesco, of the University of Miami, recruited 60 people aged between 22 and 69 whose cognitive abilities were assessed before and after they visited a retreat at Red Feather lakes, Colorado.
Regular intensive meditation over the course of a lifetime could maintain attention in old age
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
At the Shambhala Mountain meditation centre, which has been has been hosting spiritual gatherings for more than three decades, they meditated daily using techniques designed to foster calm sustained attention on a chosen object.
Aspirations such as compassion, loving-kindness, emphatic joy and equanimity were also generated among the participants, for others and themselves.
Assessments were carried out 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.
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The 40 who had remained in the study all reported some form of continued meditation practice.
Most (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.
The most dramatic results were seen in older participants who practiced a lot of meditation over the seven years, compared to those who practiced less.
The most dramatic results were seen in older participants who practiced a lot of meditation
Dr Zanesco called for further research into meditation as an way to improve brain functioning
Dr Zanesco, whose study began when he was based at the University of California, Davis, pointed out participants’ lifestyle or personality might have contributed to the observations.
He called for further research into meditation as an intervention to improve brain functioning among older people.
But he added the findings 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 programs that might aim to help with cognitive ageing.
Despite practicing that much meditation, participants did not generally improve over years. These benefits instead plateaued.
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Dr 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.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which combines meditation with thought training, can be prescribed on the NHS.
Three years ago another US study suggested meditation increased grey matter in the brain.
We can start to lose some functional abilities from as early as our mid-20s. But tests showed the process is slowed up by contemplation.
The team at the University of California, Los Angeles, found participants who had meditated for years had bigger brain volume than those who had not.