‘Promising evidence’ shows mindfulness meditation can slow cognitive decline

WINSTON-SALEM, N. C. — Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, thus far no effective method of preventing further mental decline in MCI patients has been developed. However, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center may have found a safe and non-pharmacological treatment that can help people living with the condition: mindfulness meditation.

“Until treatment options that can prevent the progression to Alzheimer’s are found, mindfulness meditation may help patients living with MCI,” says Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells, associate professor of neurology with Wake Forest Baptist Health, in a media release. “Our study showed promising evidence that adults with MCI can learn to practice mindfulness meditation, and by doing so may boost their cognitive reserve.”

Mindfulness is defined as maintaining a blank, moment-by-moment awareness of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. In other words, it is the process of training one’s mind to stay completely in the moment and relieve itself from outside distractions and anxiety triggers.

“While the concept of mindfulness meditation is simple, the practice itself requires complex cognitive processes, discipline and commitment,” Wells explains. “This study suggests that the cognitive impairment in MCI is not prohibitive of what is required to learn this new skill.”

Prior research has already established that constant feelings of stress have an impact on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and can raise one’s risk of eventually developing MCI and / or Alzheimer’s. As far as other non-drug solutions, some research has indicated that regular aerobic exercise can help mitigate the effect of stress on the brain.

In order to test if a mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) program could help people living with MCI, researchers gathered 14 men and women between the ages of 55-90 diagnosed with MCI. Each participant was then randomly assigned to either an eight-week mindfulness meditation course or a “waiting list” control group.

Initial results revealed nine participants who were enrolled in the meditation course exhibited improved cognition and well-being, as well as signs of a positive impact on the hippocampus and other areas of the brain linked to cognitive decline.

Then, researchers refined their findings by conducting interviews with each MBSR course participant following the eight-week course.

“While the MBSR course was not developed or structured to directly address MCI, the qualitative interviews revealed new and important findings specific to MCI,” Wells says. “The participants’ comments and ratings showed that most of them were able to learn the key tenets of mindfulness, demonstrating that the memory impairment of MCI does not preclude learning such skills.”

Participants who practiced meditating at least 20 minutes per day seemed to understand the process of mindfulness the most, Wells also noted.

While these findings are very promising, the research team caution that more research is needed before any definitive claims can be made regarding mindfulness meditation and MCI treatment. The study’s authors noted the experiment’s small sample size and educational discrepancies among participants as a few of the study’s limitations.

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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