Research Shows Meditation Can Slow Cognitive Decline
Meditation may help your brain stay healthy and alert by elevating cerebral blood flow, reducing the stress hormone cortisol, increasing cortical thickness and gray matter, and improving concentration.
By Nicol Natale
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD
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Cognitive decline affects many of us as we age, whether it’s minor changes in mental processes or more serious conditions, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
In the United States, 5.5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s, a progressive form of dementia that destroys memory and a variety of important mental functions. AD begins with mild symptoms, like losing your keys or forgetting your colleague’s name, then progresses to potentially fatal consequences, according to a special report published in 2019 by the Alzheimer’s Association.
Although there is no known cure for AD, research shows that meditation, a technique to achieve a calm state, might help slow the cognitive decline.
A study published in March 2019 in the journal Cerebrum found that meditation, along with a healthy diet and appropriate supplements, and physical and mental exercise may be able to reverse cognitive decline in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and subjective cognitive decline (SCD), two conditions that may lead to Alzheimer’s.
According to lead researcher Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, “there is no scientific evidence of a means to slow the progression of AD. There are, however, a wealth of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of meditation on reversing cognitive decline in pre-Alzheimer’s conditions.”
Kim Innes, PhD, an associate professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown, who was not involved in the study, adds that “meditation has been shown to reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and sleep impairment, all factors that have been linked to increased risk for neuropathological change, cognitive decline, and progression to AD. These relationships are thought to be reciprocal, highlighting the importance of early and effective intervention.”
Five Ways Meditation Can Help People Experiencing Mental Decline
1. Meditation May Help to Reduce Brain Atrophy
An uncontrolled study published in March 2019 in theJournal of Prevention and Alzheimer’s Disease evaluated the effect of 12 weeks of personalized cognitive stimulation, neurofeedback training, consuming a Mediterranean diet, increasing fitness, and practicing mindfulness meditation on 127 elderly patients with an average age of roughly 70, and showed that 84 percent of patients experienced statistically significant improvements in their cognitive functioning on a number of cognitive tests. They also randomly selected 17 of these patients and evaluated the volume of their hippocampus and found that 9 out of 17 showed a significant increase in this brain area.
2. Meditation Increases Blood Flow
According to research published in The Journal of Psychiatric Research,there is a decrease in regional cerebral blood flow in specific areas of the brain in patients diagnosed with SCD, MCI, and AD. Insufficient blood flow to the brain leads to poor oxygen supply and the death of brain tissue. But meditation has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain and protect against neurodegeneration.
A study published in theJournal of Alzheimer’s Diseasescanned the brains of 14 participants with SCD or MCI and instructed them on how to perform a meditation called Kirtan Kriya (KK) for eight weeks. KK is a 12-minute meditation that involves using fingertips in conjunction with relaxing sounds to activate the cortical homunculus, a term that represents the motor-sensory cortex, which involves the tongue, vocal apparatus, and fingertip nerve endings.
Results showed significant memory improvement in those with SCD, MCI, and those who were highly stressed caregivers, all of whom are at increased risk for development of AD.
3. Meditation Reduces the Stress Hormone Cortisol
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released by the adrenal gland in response to fear or stress. High cortisol levels increase blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugars in the bloodstream. Research has also demonstrated a potential link between high levels of cortisol and an increased risk of developing AD.
Khalsa says that “stress throughout the life span is a major risk factor for developing Alzhemier’s. Stress causes excessive release of the hormone cortisol, which travels to the memory center of the brain (the hippocampus), and kills brain cells.”
A study published in January 2019 in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimagingmeasured the levels of cortisol and amyloid-β (Aβ+), a protein strongly associated with the development of AD, in 416 healthy adults over six years. Study participants with high cortisol levels and high amyloid fared worse when performing memory tasks than individuals who had high amyloid but low cortisol.
4. Meditation Improves Concentration
Though the ability to concentrate may get better with age, we all have those times when it can be difficult to focus on the tasks at hand.
Research has shown that concentration meditation, a form of meditation that trains the mind to focus on one object for a specific period of time, improves attentional performance and decreases attentional blink, which is the when your mind fails to detect a second target because it appears to close in time to the first.
A study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared the brain scans of expert meditators (defined as having 10,000 to 54,000 hours of practice) with those of novice meditators (with a week’s worth of experience) and found that expert meditators had more activation in specific brain regions involved in attention (frontal and parietal lobes). Additionally, the expert meditators had less brain activation in regions related to discursive thoughts and emotions and more activation in regions associated with response inhibition and attention.
5. Meditation Increases Cortical Thickness and Gray Matter
The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the cerebellum that is made up of gray matter or cell bodies. The thickness of the cortex, which is associated with memory and decision-making, decreases with age.
But research shows that meditation may help by slowing this decline.
In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, researchers compared brain scans of 50 participants who meditated for an average of 20 years with 50 participants who did not meditate. Although both groups experienced a loss of gray matter, the volume of gray matter did not decline nearly as much in those who meditated compared with those who did not.
Another study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagingcompared magnetic resonance images of the brains of 16 participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program with a control group who did not meditate. Those who meditated had an increased amount of gray-matter density in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain important to learning and memory.
A Promising Tool in Maintaining Optimal Cognitive Functioning
Though meditation has been around for thousands of years, its beneficial effects on the aging brain are just beginning to be extensively explored by researchers. In terms of restoring neuron connectivity, elevating blood flow to the brain, reducing cortisol levels, and increasing cortical thickness, meditation appears to be a promising approach to improving cognitive decline with age.
Dr. Innes recommends meditation to all adults. “It often leads to immediate positive benefits,” he says.
Video: 5 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Meditation and How to Get Started
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