What do you think of when you picture researchers hard at work trying to find possible cures and treatments for Alzheimer’s? Powerful drugs with harmful side effects? Exotic herbs growing on remote mountaintops in South America?
Interestingly, a collection of researchers are investigating treatments for Alzheimer’s that don’t involve taking drugs, herbs or nutrients. Meditation is one of the most promising non-drug, non-botanical methods they’ve been investigating.
Stress Destroys, Meditation Saves
Revealingly, a studyi at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston shows that when an aging brain starts to develop Alzheimer’s, meditation and stress reduction may help fight against that cognitive deterioration.
According to researcher Rebecca Erwin Wells, who researched stress reduction techniques at the Harvard Medical School: “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 there are currently no FDA approved medications that can stop that progression. We also 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.”
Wells’s research focused on more than a dozen people over the age of 55 who were already suffering problems with memory and intellectual abilities. For comparison purposes, half of these folks took part in a two month program of what is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which consists of meditation and yoga. The others underwent normal care.
At the beginning of the study and after the two month period, all of these senior citizens underwent a functional MRI (fMRI) of their brains to see if any changes took place in brain structures or brain activities.
Wells says: “We were particularly interested in looking at the default mode network (DMN) – the brain system that is engaged when people remember past events or envision the future, for example – and the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for emotions, learning and memory – because the hippocampus is known to atrophy as people progress toward mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Other research has shown that your hippocampus lights up when you meditate and that folks who regularly meditate have a higher level of hippocampal gray matter concentration.
Meditation Can Literally Save Your Gray Matter
“So the big question is, is it possible for MBSR to help attenuate the decline of individuals already experiencing some memory problems?” Wells says.
And that’s exactly what happened: fMRI images demonstrated that the people taking part in MBSR significantly boosted their brains’ functioning connections in the areas of the default mode network, the place where memory takes place and you conceptualize your future.
And while the meditators and the non-meditators both suffered a degree of atrophy of the hippocampus, the people in the meditating group suffered less of this detrimental shrinkage.
All of these results demonstrate that western medicine is beginning to understand beneficial therapies like yoga and meditation that many Eastern medical practitioners have known about for longer than anyone can remember.
And if you have problems remembering your past, these techniques offer a way to protect your mental future.