The dementia epidemic shows no signs of slowing down. According to the World Health Organization, there will be 75 million people suffering from dementia by 2030, rising to 132 million by 2050 . The cost of caring for and treating dementia and Alzheimer’s patients is in the billions, but of course the financial cost is nothing compared to the sheer misery and emotional pain these diseases inflict on patients and their families.
While there is still no cure on the horizon, recently a small beacon of hope emerged for older adults suffering from mild cognitive decline – and mindfulness meditation plays a key role.
What is Mild Cognitive Decline?
Mild cognitive decline or MCI is the term given to the mid-way stage between normal age-related cognitive decline and dementia. In other words, it’s when memory and cognition problems start to develop which are greater than those expected by age, but not severe enough to be categorized as dementia.
MCI can be a significant early warning sign of dementia, because as many as 65% of adults suffering MCI do go on to develop dementia, with 42% of them developing the disease within five years .
To look at that figure more positively, around 35% of people with MCI do not go on to develop dementia – what if that figure could be increased? And how might mindfulness play a part?
A recent pilot research study by neurologist Rebecca Erwin Wells at Wake Forest Baptist Health aimed to find out.
What Was the Mindfulness Study?
This study, the results of which have recently appear in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was the first longitudinal mixed method study to look at the impact of mindfulness on mild cognitive impairment .
14 men and women aged between 55 and 90 with mild cognitive impairment and no history of meditation practice were randomized either onto an 8-week mindfulness meditation course or onto a waiting list. Those who undertook the mindfulness course attended sessions averaging 1.5 hours a week for 8 weeks and were given tools and encouragement to continue mindfulness practice at home between sessions and once the study ended .
Quantitative measures of cognitive function, everyday abilities and activities, psychological state and brain health were taken before the study began, at the end of the 8 weeks and again at a one year follow up.
What Did the Results Show?
The results showed improved measures of cognition and wellbeing in those who completed the mindfulness meditation course, and a positive effect on the hippocampus – an area of the brain associated with memory and learning, and which is known to play a role in the development of dementia .
The results also showed that adults with MCI were able to understand the principles of mindfulness and to apply them, with those having meditated for a minimum of around 20 minutes a day showing the most improvement .
Interestingly, those who continued their mindfulness meditation after the study ended showed a significantly greater improvement in cognitive function and everyday abilities at the one year follow up, compared to those who had not continued .
The pilot study had a very small sample size, and the authors therefore rightly advise caution in over-stating or extrapolating the results. The study also did not attempt to ascertain the mechanism behind how mindfulness may achieve the cognitive results it appeared to show. Nevertheless, the authors do recommend further research into this highly promising area.
Overall, the findings are suggestive that mindfulness meditation could be a very worthwhile non-pharmacological therapeutic intervention for those with mild cognitive impairment. This crucial window period could perhaps be ripe for such interventions, which may make a difference to whether someone goes on to develop dementia or not.
“Our study showed promising evidence that adults with MCI can learn to practice mindfulness meditation, and by doing so may boost their cognitive reserve. Until treatment options that can prevent the progression to Alzheimer’s are found, mindfulness meditation may help patients living with MCI,” said study author Rebecca Erwin Wells, associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and a practicing neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.