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Mindful : October 2014
That ’s a vote of confidence for ta rgeting the funda- mental changes that mark brain aging. The idea, said Posit chief executive Henry Mahncke, a neuroscientist, is to “fix the underlying information-processing machine rather tha n ta rget higher-level functions like memory directly.” Indeed, a 2009 study by scientists at the Mayo Clinic found that people using a Posit program that trains hearing—distin- guishing high tones f rom low ones, telling whether two tones are the same or different—made statistically significant (though not huge) gains in memory and pro- cessing speed. The memory improvement was equivalent to about 10 years, so 58-year- olds regained the memory ability of their pre-AARP-eli- gible selves. The findings on the effects of mindfulness are more prelimina ry, but intrigu- ing. One 2013 study taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to 201 older adults for eight weeks, and tested them before and after on the Trail Making Test. Considered a way to measure executive function, the test is essentially about connecting dots, but with letters thrown in: rather than connecting 1 to 2 to 3, you have to connect 1 to A to 2toBto3,andsoon,which requires the frontal cortex to flip between accessing num- bers and letters. By the end of mindfulness training, the trainees’ executive function increased by about 12% while the control group got worse. Six months later, the trainees gave back some of their gains, but very likely would have kept more of them, or even improved further, if they had continued practicing MBSR. That’s a problem with many studies like this: They test a short-lived intervention rather than the effects of a long-lived change such as practicing MBSR reg ula rly. In any case, the benefits this study found jibe with the deepening recognition that mindfulness strengthens the neural circuitry associated with emotional control, as it trains practitioners to focus on the contents of their mind or perceptions dispassionately and without judgment. “Emo- tional control a nd cognitive control share somewhat of a simila r neural circuitry,” said psychologist Ruchika Pra kash of Ohio State University, co-author of a 2014 paper reviewing mindfulness and the aging brain. That suggests that the emotional circuitry that mindfulness engages can also “be tapped to enhance cognitive control,” which declines with aging. In a development that focuses on not just mental aging, but aging altogether, Elissa Epel, in the department of psychiatry at the University of California–San Francisco, has been leading a g roup of resea rchers testing the pos- sibility that meditation may be able to slow down cellular aging. Shortened telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, have been linked to chronic stress exposure a nd depression. And shorter telomere leng th has been associated with aging. Since research suggests that meditation may decrease stress and depression, the investigators are trying to see whether this is resulting in reversing the shortening of telomeres and therefore slow- ing down cellular aging. One thing is for sure: We will not live forever, but if meditating, dancing, walking, and connecting a few dots will make the mind a little more spry, why not? ● October 2014 mindful 29