Preventing Dementia – The Mindfulness Connection
Other forms of dementia exist besides Alzheimer’s disease, but this form is the most common. It is also a disorder that strikes fear in most individuals entering middle-age. The National Institute on Aging reports that one in seven adults over the age of 70 in the U.S. has been diagnosed with dementia (1). Since there is no cure, preventing dementia is a public health focus. Mindfulness and meditation are effective as prevention tools according to recent Alzheimer’s disease research findings.
Symptoms of Early Dementia – Why Recognition is Important
Forgetfulness is not necessarily a symptom of dementia, but it is usually a feature. Lack of sleep and prolonged stress can also foster forgetfulness.
However, progressive short-term memory loss is the hallmark symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. In a person over 40 years old who formerly had a good memory, increasing forgetfulness may be a sign that some type of brain dysfunction is occurring. There are only five medications that are currently approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and all must be started at onset of this condition to be effective. The first pharmaceutical was not approved until 1993, and no effective drug treatment exists for any later phase (2).
Mindfulness and Cognition – The Relationship
Research studies have shown strong evidence that mindfulness practices, such as meditation, increase short-term memory and the ability to maintain attention. Indeed, a study that compared findings from a structured exercise program to a meditation program—in terms of the participants’ short-term memory abilities—found that meditation produced better results (3)!
An article in 2015 that reviewed studies focused on effective cognitive enhancers (CEs) included meditation (4). Specifically, it described a link between meditation and the following four cognitive processes: attention, memory, executive functioning, and processing speed. Study findings published in 2017 focused on “grey matter” degeneration; the article’s authors concluded that meditation increases “grey matter” volume and reduces its atrophy (5).
Researchers have also compared various mindfulness practices in terms of results in dementia patients, and—while beneficial overall—found no specific differences in results between the studied practices (6). These practices were as follows:
- Zen meditation – originated in China (and spread to Japan);
- Transcendental meditation – originated in India;
- Vihangam yoga – originated in India;
- Kirtan Kirya (Sa Ta Na Ma meditation) – originated in India
Difference Between Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) and Alzheimer’s Disease
An abnormal build-up of proteins in the brain—termed Lewy bodies—is found in people with the second-most common form of dementia. In contrast to PET scan images in persons afflicted with Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), the scans in Alzheimer’s disease patients typically show plaques composed of beta-amyloid protein. The cognitive feature most associated with LBD is an inability to control expressions of mood—especially anger and sadness. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, there are no pharmaceutical treatments for LBD. However, mindfulness practices can be calming, and reduce feelings of both anger and sadness.
Tau Proteins vs. Beta-Amyloid Proteins – Which are More Important?
Tau deposits in the temporal lobe of the brain were more linked to deficits in memory than beta-amyloid protein deposits, according to an article in Science in 2016. Meanwhile, this article also notes that 30 percent of people without any symptoms of dementia have beta-amyloid plaques—which may mean that tau deposits are the more critical in the development of memory problems. This same article describes the findings of a study that suggests that tau deposits—as viewed by PET scan—are actually more predictive of who will develop Alzheimer’s disease than the beta-amyloid protein deposits in the brain.
- National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging. (2007). Newsroom – One in seven Americans age 71 and older has some type of dementia, NIH-funded study estimates. Webpage: https://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2007/10/one-seven-americans-age-71-and-older-has-some-type-dementia-nih-funded-study
- Alzheimer’s Association. Science and Progress – Major Milestones in Alzheimer’s and Brain Research. Webpage: http://www.alz.org/research/science/major_milestones_in_alzheimers.asp
- Zeidan F, Johnson SK, Diamond BJ, et al. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition 19(2): 597-605. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20363650
- Sachdeva A, Kumar K, and Anand KS. (2015). Non Pharmacological Cognitive Enhancers – Current Perspectives. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research 9(7):VE01-VE06. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4573018/
- Last N, Tufts E, and Auger LE. (2017). The Effects of Meditation on Grey Matter Atrophy and Neurodegeneration: A Systematic Review. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 56(1): 275-286. Webpage: http://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad160899
- Marciniak R, Sheardova K, Čermáková P, et al. (2014). Effect of Meditation on Cognitive Functions in Context of Aging and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 8: 17. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3903052/
- Underwood, Emily. (May 11, 2016). Tau protein—not amyloid—may be key driver of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Science Webpage: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/tau-protein-not-amyloid-may-be-key-driver-alzheimer-s-symptoms