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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Study: Meditation may head off dementia

Medical studies in recent years have documented changes in the brains of those who meditate -- but it hasn't been clear what those changes might mean. A new pilot study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center suggests that the brain changes associated with meditation and stress reduction may play an important role in slowing the progression of age-related cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

"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," says first author Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH, who conducted her research as a fellow in Integrative Medicine at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School. "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."

The study used adults with mild cognitive impairment divided into a control group and a group that was trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, whose members meditate each day for the eight-week program and did a day-long retreat.

The study found improved functional connectivity in the part of t he brain responsible for memory in the meditators. It also found less atrophy of the hippocampus, which plays a role in dementia.

"MBSR is a relatively simple intervention, with very little downside that may provide real promise for these individuals who have very few treatment options," says Wells. She adds that future studies will need to be larger and evaluate cognitive outcomes as well. "If MBSR can help delay the symptoms of cognitive decline even a little bit, it can contribute to improved quality of life for many of these patients."