Can Meditation Slow the Progression of Alzheimer's Disease?

Many Americans practice meditation, a mind-body practice that uses body posture, controlled breathing, focused attention and self-observation to increase calmness and promote overall well-being. The "living in the moment" nature of meditation provides a welcome contrast from today’s hectic pace that fragments our days with text messages, phone interruptions and other distractions.

A host of studies have demonstrated the benefits of meditation in treating depression, anxiety, sleep problems and pain. The American Heart Association says that meditation may reduce the likelihood of heart attack and stroke and can lower blood pressure. Other studies show that meditation can relieve chronic inflammation.

Researchers from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) recently completed a pilot study to discover whether meditation could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Neurologists previously used brain scans to confirm that meditation can change the structures and activity of the brain. The BIDMC research team wanted to find out if those changes could benefit people with mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which people have memory problems that are greater than normal for their age.

Study author Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.D., M.P.H., explained, "We know that approximately 50 percent of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—the intermediate stage between the expected declines of normal aging and the more serious cognitive deterioration associated with dementia—may develop dementia within five years. And unfortunately, we know that there are currently no FDA-approved medications that can stop the progression."

Dr. Wells and her team targeted stress reduction in their investigation. She said, "We know that as people age, there’s a high correlation between perceived stress and Alzheimer's disease, so we wanted to know if stress reduction through meditation might improve cognitive reserve."

To find out, the team studied a group of older participants, some of whom were already experiencing mild cognitive impairment. Half of the seniors participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. Mindfulness meditation training involves focusing attention on present-moment experience and the nonjudgmental awareness of body sensations and emotions. The team was particularly interested in observing the effects of meditation on the parts of the brain that process emotions, learning and memory, which are known to atrophy as dementia progresses.

The team documented that the test subjects who engaged in meditation had better function and less deterioration in these parts of the brain. "This is a small study and more research is needed to further investigate these results, but we’re very excited about these findings," said Dr. Wells. She calls for further studies, explaining, "MBSR is a relatively simple intervention, with very little downside, that may provide real promise for individuals who have very few treatment options. If MBSR can help delay the symptoms of cognitive decline even a little bit, it can contribute to improved quality of life for many patients."

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a teaching and research affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Learn More

Visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website to find updates on research investigating the health benefits of meditation.

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