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Meditating regularly can boost attention span in old age

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Press Trust of India Los Angeles
Meditating regularly over the course of a lifetime can help a person remain attentive and focused well into old age, a study has found.
The research, published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, evaluates the benefits that people gained after three months of full-time meditation training and whether these benefits are maintained seven years later.
The study follows up on previous work by the same group of researchers at the University of California, Davis in the US, which assessed the cognitive abilities of 30 people who regularly meditated before and after they went on a three-month-long retreat at a 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 travelling 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.
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 practise.
The forty participants who had remained in the study all reported some form of continued meditation practise: 85 per cent attended at least one meditation retreat, and they practised 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 practised a lot of meditation over the seven years. Compared to those who practised 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 practise 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," said Anthony Zanesco, who is now at the University of Miami in the US.
The 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 practised far more meditation than is feasible for shorter-term programmes that might aim to help with cognitive ageing, and despite practising that much meditation, participants did not generally improve over years; these benefits instead plateaued.
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.

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First Published: Mar 29 2018 | 2:35 PM IST

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