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A Review of Meditation Practices for Cognitive Aging

Research has shown that Alzheimer's disease can be modified by lifestyle factors.

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A team of researchers, including Dr. Olga M Limecki of TU Dresden University, has published a review on the effect of mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness compassion meditation (LKCM) and proposed a model to study it [1].

Mindfulness and compassion mediation defined

One of our Science to Save the World episodes discusses what meditation does to the brain and how it can be used to increase mindfulness. Both mindfulness meditation and LKCM can foster positive feelings. According to Dr. Carol Ryff and colleagues, researchers who developed psychological well-being measurements, positive function examples include enlightened self-knowledge, purposeful engagement in life, and realization of personal aptitudes and capacities [2].

This review hypothesizes that mindfulness meditation and LKCM are protective against Alzheimer’s disease in the aging population. While meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, few randomized control studies have been done to examine its role in neuroprotection. The authors cite research showing that approximately 30 to 40% of cases of Alzheimer’s-induced dementia originate from modifiable risk factors [3,4].

One of our recent articles showed that higher education levels slow cognitive decline. The authors cite prior research showing other modifiable, non-psychological risk factors for cognitive decline, such as smoking, mid-life hypertension, physical inactivity, mid-life obesity, diabetes, hearing loss, diet, sleep issues, and financial issues. As interventions thus far have targeted most of these factors, the researchers propose a focus on psychological risk factors, including anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and repetitive negative thinking.

Human data

The review goes over many studies in regards to meditation and brain health. In regards to cognitive decline and aging, cross-sectional studies on meditation have found that older adults who have practiced meditation over a long period of time have higher levels of executive function, attention, and fluid attention than non-meditating older adults [5,6].

Due to promising observational studies on individuals who regularly engage in meditation, the authors urge that further randomized, controlled trials with larger sample sizes are needed to further elucidate the effect of mindfulness meditation on cognition and emotional regulation in older adults.

Three large randomized controlled studies were aimed at incorporating several of the modifiable risk factors into targeted interventions based on lifestyle approaches. One of these trials, called the FINGER study, showed interventions that aimed at lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise and brain training, had a positive effect on cognition [7].

The authors of this review previously showed that in six older adults who were expert meditators had preserved grey matter volume and/or more glucose metabolism [8]. Cerebral brain volume and brain glucose metabolism decrease with age, and meditation may be used as a tool to prevent and/or delay this consequence of aging [8,9]. Additionally, many studies support that chronic stress and stress-inducing procedures can increase the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which has been associated with neurodegeneration, cognitive dysfunction, and depression [10].

The reviewers show the psychological and cognitive mechanism of mindfulness meditation and LKCM practices. The mindfulness meditation pathway downregulates repetitive negative thinking and afflictive emotions, and the LKCM pathway upregulates positive factors and pro-social mindsets. These meditation practices ultimately influence automatic processes involved in emotional appraisal, autonomic and immune systems, and the HPA axis.

The review also shows the effects of mindfulness meditation and LKCM on the brain. Both lead to a decrease in adverse and detrimental factors of aging while promoting favorable and beneficial factors. The authors specifically hypothesize a cascade effect across multiple domains, and longer time scales could show slowed or accelerated aging due to these modifiable factors.

Conclusion

The reviewers argue that ongoing research needs to examine the combination of mindfulness meditation and LKCM, and they propose that short and long interventions of mindfulness meditation and LKCM would impact Alzheimer’s disease. To test their model proposed in this review, the Medit-Aging study is an upcoming 8-week and 18-month intervention that will use pre-existing databases in order to study the effect of meditation on older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. This research study is projected to be completed by March 2022. Stay tuned if you want to learn more.

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Literature

[1] Lutz, A., ChΓ©telat, G., Collette, F., Klimecki, O. M., Marchant, N. L., & Gonneaud, J. (2021). The protective effect of mindfulness and compassion meditation practices on ageing: Hypotheses, models and experimental implementation. Ageing research reviews, 72, 101495. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2021.101495

[2] Ryff, C. D., Heller, A. S., Schaefer, S. M., van Reekum, C., & Davidson, R. J. (2016). Purposeful Engagement, Healthy Aging, and the Brain. Current behavioral neuroscience reports, 3(4), 318–327. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40473-016-0096-z

[3] Montero-Odasso, M., Ismail, Z., & Livingston, G. (2020). One third of dementia cases can be prevented within the next 25 years by tackling risk factors. The case “for” and “against”. Alzheimer’s research & therapy, 12(1), 81. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13195-020-00646-x

[4] Norton, S., Matthews, F. E., Barnes, D. E., Yaffe, K., & Brayne, C. (2014). Potential for primary prevention of Alzheimer’s disease: an analysis of population-based data. The Lancet. Neurology, 13(8), 788–794. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1474-4422(14)70136-X

[5] Gard, T., HΓΆlzel, B. K., & Lazar, S. W. (2014). The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307, 89–103. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12348

[6] Prakash, R., Rastogi, P., Dubey, I., Abhishek, P., Chaudhury, S., & Small, B. J. (2012). Long-term concentrative meditation and cognitive performance among older adults. Neuropsychology, development, and cognition. Section B, Aging, neuropsychology and cognition, 19(4), 479–494. https://doi.org/10.1080/13825585.2011.630932

[7] Ngandu, T., Lehtisalo, J., Solomon, A., LevΓ€lahti, E., Ahtiluoto, S., Antikainen, R., BΓ€ckman, L., HΓ€nninen, T., Jula, A., Laatikainen, T., LindstrΓΆm, J., Mangialasche, F., Paajanen, T., Pajala, S., Peltonen, M., Rauramaa, R., Stigsdotter-Neely, A., Strandberg, T., Tuomilehto, J., Soininen, H., … Kivipelto, M. (2015). A 2 year multidomain intervention of diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring versus control to prevent cognitive decline in at-risk elderly people (FINGER): a randomised controlled trial. Lancet (London, England), 385(9984), 2255–2263. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60461-5

[8] ChΓ©telat, G., MΓ©zenge, F., Tomadesso, C., Landeau, B., Arenaza-Urquijo, E., Rauchs, G., AndrΓ©, C., de Flores, R., Egret, S., Gonneaud, J., Poisnel, G., Chocat, A., Quillard, A., Desgranges, B., Bloch, J. G., Ricard, M., & Lutz, A. (2017). Reduced age-associated brain changes in expert meditators: a multimodal neuroimaging pilot study. Scientific reports, 7(1), 10160. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-07764-x

[9] Fjell, A. M., & Walhovd, K. B. (2010). Structural brain changes in aging: courses, causes and cognitive consequences. Reviews in the neurosciences, 21(3), 187–221. https://doi.org/10.1515/revneuro.2010.21.3.187

[10] Rossetti, C., Halfon, O., & Boutrel, B. (2014). Controversies about a common etiology for eating and mood disorders. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1205. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01205

About the author

Tovah

Tovah has been a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) for the past 11 years in clinical, research, teaching, community, and industry roles. Her dissertation work was focused on nutritional and behavioral neuroscience approaches for chronic disease prevention. She was a writer for Lifespan.io from 2021-22 and is still an active volunteer with the org.
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