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Could meditation help slow Alzheimer’s?

Chances are, you or someone you know have been impacted by a loved one suffering from memory problems as they age, or have a family member who’s amongst the 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease.

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A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease looked at whether meditation or classical music could impact the cognitive outcome on people who were experiencing subjective cognitive decline (individuals concerned with their own memory problems), which is a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. Early intervention when someone starts to show signs of cognition problems is important to try to help prevent the condition from advancing. “[W]hile subjective cognitive decline has been linked to increased risk for the subsequent development of cognitive impairment and dementia and may reflect a preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease, it may also provide a critical window for therapeutic intervention, and progression is by no means inevitable,” says study author Kim Innes, MSPH, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, West Virginia University School of Public Health. In the study, 53 participants were randomly assigned to either practice a form of meditation called Kirtan Kriya or listen to classical music daily for three months_._ Then, they had the option to continue their assigned practice for another three months—74 percent of the participants did. The researchers found that both groups showed significant improvements in memory and cognitive performance after three months, based on their scores on a Memory Function Questionnaire (with gains being particularly pronounced in the meditation group). Six months since the research intervention began, the cognitive gains were maintained or improved further, lending support to the benefits other studies have shown that practicing meditation continuously for a few months can have even more benefits as time goes on.

“[The meditation participants learned] new motor and sensory skills, a process which has been associated with improvements in cognitive function and related positive changes in the brain,” Innes says. The meditation also involves training to maintain attention and focus, and in the shifting between one task and another; according to Innes such training may improve several aspects of cognitive function, including memory and cognitive flexibility. “While this is only one study, these findings suggest that simple mind-body practices may be helpful in those with concerns about their memory,” says Innes. Improvement in brain function may be due to the participants continuing to practice on their own over the following three months; the resulting cumulative beneficial effects on the brain, as well as on mood, stress, sleep, and other factors related to memory and cognitive functioning, says Innes. “In our study, we observed significant, sustained improvements in mood, stress, well-being, sleep, and quality of life ... in the Kirtan Kriya meditation group,” she says. “Positive changes in sleep and psychological status were related to gains in memory function, and, albeit more modestly, cognitive performance, suggesting a possible connection.”

While meditation has been shown in some studies to have favorable short-term effects on the brain and on certain aspects of cognition and well-being, a daily or regular practice is likely essential to establish, maintain, and improve mental health and brain fitness, given that meditation may be essentially retraining and remodeling the brain, as well as entraining new habits and responses, says Innes. “Moreover, as the brain typically begins to atrophy with age, beginning as early as the mid-twenties, a regular meditation practice may aid in preserving brain grey matter and in reducing risk for cognitive decline.” If you’re concerned about Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline running in your family, or simply want to protect yourself against age-related memory issues as best you can, maybe give meditation a shot. [Editor’s Note: To get started, try out the Basics for free with Headspace.]

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