Psychadelic mind art

agsandrew / iStock / Getty Images

A standard therapy does not exist to prevent or delay the progression from mild cognitive impairment—a decline in brain abilities like memory, thinking, language, and judgment—to Alzheimer’s disease. This type of medical intervention would have a huge impact on patients and their loved ones as well as the economic burden of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, a study has shown that mindfulness meditation can have positive effects on cognitive impairment in adults. In the study, adults with mild cognitive impairment could learn mindfulness meditation, and those that did had improved mild cognitive impairment. This research shows that the brain function of patients with mild cognitive impairment can be enhanced through non-drug-based approaches like mindfulness meditation.

Exercising away dementia demons

While medications have been unsuccessful, non-drug-based interventions, like exercise, have shown promise in improving brain function. Fittingly, exercise has shown to increase the volume of a key brain structure involved in memory processing that degenerates with Alzheimer’s disease called the hippocampus, which is a sign of improved brain health.

How these changes occur is not well-understood, but there are clues that the stress-reducing component of exercise may play a role. Chronic stress negatively impacts the hippocampus, and high levels of chronic stress are linked to an increased prevalence of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

Adults with mild cognitive impairment who are prone to high levels of psychological distress are more likely to develop dementia—a group of symptoms (not a singular disease) affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities that interfere with daily life. Animal research demonstrates that high levels of cortisol—the “stress hormone”—can damage the hippocampus. So, it’s possible that stress-reducing interventions might be helpful for adults with mild cognitive impairment.

Get your asana mat

In the 1970s at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn created a widely tested and standardized 8-week mind-body workshop called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s course teaches yoga and mindfulness meditation—the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.

Mindfulness is widely practiced today and can be found in countless apps on your smartphone. These approaches have been tested for a range of health problems. This includes anxiety disorder, mood disorder, substance use disorder, eating disorders, chronic pain, ADHD, insomnia, and coping with medical conditions.

Mindfulness-based practices have been shown to decrease perceived stress and “stress hormone” (i.e. cortisol) levels as well as improve overall well-being. Meditation selectively activates the hippocampus. Experienced meditators have larger and denser gray matter in their hippocampi, signs of brain enhancement, compared to matched non-meditators. This shows that MBSR is a stress-reducing intervention impacting the hippocampus that could potentially interrupt the progression of mild cognitive impairment through these effects.

The period when an individual has mild cognitive impairment is brief, offering a rare window of opportunity prior to the development of dementia. So, finding an intervention that could help patients during this window may prove invaluable. Mindfulness, if helpful for adults with mild cognitive impairment, could be easily used and recommended as a standardized intervention.

Improved piece of mind, om yeah!

So, researchers wanted to know if mindfulness meditation and yoga could benefit and improve adults with mild cognitive impairment. They worked with adults that had mild cognitive impairment. These participants either enrolled in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program or were wait-listed as controls. The participants completed interviews and compared to the amount of mindfulness practice and brain function.

The researchers found several themes from adults with mild cognitive impairment who were put into the mindfulness group. Understanding the key concepts of mindfulness was highly positively correlated with more home practice. Importantly, these participants could learn the ability to develop mindfulness as well as benefits to well-being, decreased stress reactivity, and increased relaxation. Other themes that arose were improvements in interpersonal skills and enhancement in social engagement.

Ultimately, in patients with mild cognitive impairment, they saw that mindfulness meditation provided an enhancement of cognitive reserve—the mind’s resistance to brain damage. This shows promising evidence that adults with mild cognitive impairment can learn to practice mindfulness meditation. By doing so, it may boost their cognitive reserve.

Stopping the brain from decom-posing

For patients with mild cognitive impairment, several non-drug-based methods may be the best option until researchers find preventative treatment options. In addition to mindfulness meditation, studies have shown that mental activity, exercise, and social engagement may help decrease the risk of further cognitive decline in adults with mild cognitive impairment.

In fact, the American Academy of Neurology—a professional society representing over 36,000 neurologists and neuroscientists—has recommended mental activity, exercise, and social engagement to its guidelines for the treatment of mild cognitive impairment. Along these lines, MBSR may be the ideal program during this window of opportunity prior to potential progression to dementia because it incorporates aspects of each of these activities.

A bit of a stretch?

Psychological well-being and quality of life are crucial yet often forgotten factors to address fears of progression to dementia. Future studies are needed to understand if mindfulness could benefit other brain functions. Nevertheless, mindfulness is a safe and accepted medical intervention that may positively impact the quality of life in adults with mild cognitive impairment. Mindfulness may enable patients to better handle their diagnosis. It may help them improve their approach to their condition and to life, bringing peace of mind.