The rewards of meditation are reaped for many years: Research shows the cognitive gains last, even if you don’t maintain practice

Cognitive improvements gained from practicing meditation can last for a minimum of seven years, according to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. Researchers at the University of California – Davis based the initial study on The Shamatha Project, which is an investigation of the cognitive, psychological, and biological impacts of meditation. They aimed to determine whether attention gains remain after an initial period after intensive meditation.

In the initial study, the researchers recruited 60 study participants who had experience with meditation. The study participants attended a three-month meditation retreat and received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques. They attended group meditation sessions twice a day and meditated individually for at least six hours a day. Participants who went to the meditation retreat exhibited improvements in attention and in general psychological well-being as well as ability to cope with stress.

After the retreat, the researchers followed up with the participants immediately, at six months, 18 months, and seven years. Out of the 60 participants, only 40 participants remained in the study at the most recent follow-up. These participants reported that they continued practicing some form of meditation over the seven-year period, equal to around an hour per day on average.

The follow-up study showed that the improvements in attention observed immediately after retreat were partially sustained even seven years later. This was especially evident among the older participants who maintained a more diligent meditation practice over the seven-year period. Those who practiced meditation more maintained cognitive gains and did not exhibit typical patterns of age-related decline in sustained attention, in comparison to those who practiced less. Lead author Anthony Zanesco also noted that the lifestyle or personality of the participants might have contributed to the observations as well.

“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,” said Zanesco, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Miami.

The benefits of meditating

Described as the habitual process of training the mind to focus and redirect thoughts, meditation provides various health benefits. As people discover its benefits, the popularity of meditation increases. (Related: Meditation: How an ancient practice has come to be known as a panacea for modern ills.)

Here are some of the benefits of practicing meditation:

  • Reduces stress – One of the most common reasons people try meditation is to reduce stress. According to research, different styles of meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, can help reduce the inflammatory response caused by stress. In addition, the practice can also improve symptoms in people with stress-related medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia.
  • Manages anxiety – Practicing meditation habitually can also help cut down anxiety and anxiety-related mental health disorders, such as social anxiety, phobias, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and panic attacks.
  • Improves emotional health – Meditation can improve depression. Some types of meditation can result in an improved self-image and more positive outlook on life as well. Research suggested that continuously practicing meditation may help maintain these benefits in the long run.
  • Prolongs attention span – Some forms of meditation, such as focused-attention meditation, can help increase the strength and endurance of a person’s attention. Even meditating for a short period may build the ability to redirect and maintain attention.
  • Enhances sleep – Various meditation techniques can induce relaxation and control the “runaway” thoughts that often result in insomnia. Meditation can put you in a peaceful state and increase sleep quality.

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