March 28 (UPI) -- Regular and intensive meditation sessions could help a person remain attentive and focused as they become older, according to a new follow-up study.
Originally, researchers at the University of California, Davis, in 2011 assessed the cognitive abilities of 30 people who regularly meditated before and after they went on a three-month-long retreat at the Shambhala Mountain meditation center in Colorado. They ranged in age from 22 to 69.
Researchers conducted follow-up assessments six months, 18 months and seven years after completion of the retreats. The findings were published Wednesday in Springer's Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.
"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," lead author Anthony Zanesco, now at the University of Miami, said in a Springer news release.
At the center, they meditated daily using techniques that included shamatha, "designed to foster calm sustained attention on a chosen object, and complementary techniques, known as the Four Immeasurables (compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity), aimed at generating benevolent aspirations for the well-being of oneself and others," according to the researchers.
Meeting twice daily for group practice and discussion, it also included breathing exercises.
Another group of 30 people also regularly meditated and monitored at the center.
In the follow up seven years later, participants were asked to estimate how much time they had spent meditating outside of formal retreat settings.
All of the 40 participants who remained in the study reported some form of continued meditation practice on average of an hour a day. Eighty-five percent reported they attended at least one meditation retreat on average hour a day.
Assessments again measured their reaction time and ability to pay attention to a task.
In those findings, the cognitive gains after the 2011 training and assessment were partially maintained.
Those who practiced a lot of meditation maintained better cognitive abilities and didn't show typical patterns of age-related decline in sustained attention compared to those who practiced less.
Zanesco said further research is needed before meditation can be identified as way to counter the effects of aging on the brain. He also said that participants' lifestyle or personality might have contributed to the results.
In 2014, the National Institutes of Health published a report that examined 12 studies on the effects of cognitive function in older adults -- including six that were randomized, controlled trials through 2013.
"Studies involved a wide variety of meditation techniques and reported preliminary positive effects on attention, memory, executive function, processing speed and general cognition," the report said. "However, most studies had a high risk of bias and small sample sizes. Reported dropout rates were low and compliance rates high. We conclude that meditation interventions for older adults are feasible, and preliminary evidence suggests that meditation can offset age-related cognitive decline."