Research suggests mindfulness meditation may actually help to slow down the mental decline of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Mindfulness, a kind of meditation where one “pays attention on purpose without judgement,” has been a part of religious and spiritual practices for centuries.
People who practice Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) have reported health improvements in conditions from chronic pain to congestive heart failure to AIDS. Recent studies show that MBSR and its core technique of meditation make significant structural changes to the brain, as well as reported improvement in cognition, stress reduction and overall wellbeing.
Since medical science has not discovered a way to reverse dementia and Alzheimer’s, this research offers new hope for those who are still in the early stages of cognitive impairment, as well as for those who hope to prevent it.
What does research tell us?
A small but important study at in 2013 showed meaningful changes in the brains of participants at the end of an 8-week program of MBSR, as compared to a control group. Participants were 55-90 years of age, diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
The MBSR program included meditation and yoga, as well as a day-long mindfulness retreat and weekly 2-hour group meetings. At the end of the program, those who participated in the MBSR program showed improvement in cognition and wellbeing, as well as MRI evidence that their hippocampus atrophy was less than in the control group.
Research on healthy subjects shows that meditation increases grey matter density in the hippocampus, long thought to be related to learning, memory and emotional control, as well as activities like self-awareness and compassion. Study participants reported feeling less stress as well; brain imaging showed decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with the stress response.
In 2010 a study of cognitively impaired individuals showed that 12 minutes of meditation a day improved blood flow to the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (responsible for retrieving memories), and yielded improvements in language, memory, attention and overall cognition.
A Simple Mindful Meditation Exercise
Sit, lie or stand comfortably and relax. Feel your body where it connects with the bed, chair or ground.
Breathe deeply but without effort; don’t hold your breath. Imagine the air filling you up like a balloon, then whooshing out steadily, taking your thoughts and worries with it.
Take about 10 breaths, and feel the rhythm of it, like riding waves. Feel the pauses between them.
Notice your body relaxing. You will notice your thoughts. Let them happen, like clouds in the sky.
Don’t hold on to them, or pay attention to them. Just let them drift into your mind and back out again while you focus on the gentle ocean of your breath. Be aware of how your body is feeling.
Breath warm, relaxing attention into anywhere that feels tight or tense. When your thoughts distract you, return to your breath.
When you feel emotion, try to relax and let it flow over and through you. Be aware of how your breath and your body respond to your feelings.
Focus on staying relaxed, open, breathing.
Try this for 10-15 minutes at first, and gradually progress to longer periods.
Mindfulness meditation may not sound like a powerful tool to a better life, but research has proved it to be enormously useful in preserving and improving mental function. Although there are books, classes, workshops, websites and apps to help you develop a mindfulness meditation practice, it doesn’t take much space, money or time to make it a regular part of your daily schedule. A mindfulness routine is worth incorporating into your life, whether you are struggling with dementia yourself or trying to prevent it. Your mind is worth it.