How Mental (St)illness Saves Senior Brains
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can affect up to 20 percent of the population at any one time — and half of these people will progress to full-on dementia, according to an article in Prevention magazine. That’s a scary statistic. But while medication can do little to slow the progression, there’s a way to positively impact mental health with no dangerous side effects: meditation.
Yogis and proponents of complementary medicine have long espoused the benefits of meditation for quieting the mind, and in the West, more people have begun meditating in recent decades. Meditation teachers often focus on busy professionals, who barely pause in their frenetic climb up the ladder long enough to enjoy a leisurely meal, let alone meditate.
Using the mind to heal the mind
But in China, people of all ages — especially elders — start their day with flowing movement meditations known as tai chi and qigong, often in the local park. Chinese residents by the millions practice these ancient healing arts for stilling the mind and strengthening the body.
It might behoove seniors stateside, as well as their loved ones, caregivers, and others who work with them, such as reverse mortgage professionals, to take a deeper look at meditation. According to new research, this mental stillness practice may help slow, or even prevent, dementia.
One study took forty adults ranging in age from 55 to 85, taught half the group mindfulness meditation (a type of Buddhist meditation that promotes jettisoning worry and being in the present moment) and kept the other half as a control group (i.e., non-meditating). The meditators attended weekly two-hour meetings in which they learned mindfulness techniques such as proper awareness and breathing for deep relaxation. They also practiced mindfulness meditation for half an hour at home daily, and attended one daylong retreat.
Those practicing mindfulness meditation reported feeling less lonely. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Meditation also reduced the seniors’ levels of inflammatory proteins.
In a similar study, researchers had a group of adults aged 55 to 90, all with mild cognitive impairment, do a guided meditation for fifteen to thirty minutes a day for eight weeks, as well attend weekly mindfulness check-ins. Eight weeks later, MRIs revealed slowed shrinkage of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory that usually shrinks with dementia). Participants also showed overall improvement in cognition and well being.
Caring for the Caregivers
In a complementary study aimed at caregivers, researchers recruited 45 men and women who were caring for a family member with dementia and divided the participants into two groups. One group learned a 12-minute yoga practice called Kirtan Kriya that includes an ancient chanting meditation, which they performed every day at the same time for eight weeks. The other group was asked to relax in a quiet place with their eyes closed while listening to music on a relaxation CD, also for 12 minutes daily for eight weeks.
After eight weeks of daily chanting, the meditation group showed clear reductions in levels of various proteins linked to inflammation. This is important, as “Caregivers often don’t have the time, energy or contacts that could bring them a little relief from the stress of taking care of a loved one with dementia, so practicing a brief form of yogic meditation, which is easy to learn, is a useful tool,” notes Dr. Helen Lavretsky, senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
Now that Alzheimer’s Disease can be detected early via the cerebrospinal fluid, it makes more sense than ever for seniors whose brains indicate an inflammatory process to take steps to slow or reverse the decline. Meditation, not medication, is a health boost on every level. Sometimes a subtle shift makes all the difference.