The One Way You May be Able to Save Your Brain from Alzheimer’s

Thursday Apr 2 | BY |
| Comments (1)

Meditation. Relaxing business woman on the beach

Another study shows meditation protects the aging brain—is it time to work it into your daily routine?

My grandmother lived until she was 93 years old. Right up until the end, she never missed a beat. She was as sharp on her last day as any other day I’d known her, with a quick Irish wit and an ability to sum up a person’s character with one sweep of her gaze.

Not everyone is so lucky, unfortunately.

We’re living longer these days, but not necessarily better. Age-related cognitive decline is on the rise, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease to double by the year 2050.

For most of us, brain health is an afterthought, if we think of it at all. But even if we do try to take steps to preserve it, it can be confusing to know just what to do to protect ourselves.

Recent studies suggest that we may need only a comfortable seat and a space to call our own.

We’re Living Longer—and More Likely to Live with Dementia

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that currently, up to 5.3 million American’s has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the fifth leading cause among people 65 years of age and older.

To put that into perspective: When a woman turns 60, her risk of developing Alzheimer’s is 1 in 6. Her risk of breast cancer is 1 in 11. Women are more vulnerable to the disease—about two-thirds of people living with it are women. The same stats exist for caregivers—about two-thirds are women.

The number of people affected is estimated to rise partly because our senior population is increasing. As the baby boom generation ages, it’s expected that the number of people over 65 with Alzheimer’s may nearly triple.

Meanwhile, while we focus on other diseases like heart disease and stroke, Alzheimer’s is sneaking up on us. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that between 2000 and 2010, deaths caused by most major diseases decreased:

  • Breast cancer deaths dropped by two percent.
  • Prostate cancer deaths dropped by 8 percent.
  • Heart disease deaths dropped by 16 percent.
  • Stroke deaths dropped by 23 percent.
  • HIV deaths dropped by 42 percent.
  • Alzheimer’s deaths rose by 68 percent.

In addition to the devastating loss that patients face, there’s also the toll on caregivers, which is significant. The Alzheimer’s Association (AA) notes that in 2013, 15.5 million family and friends provided 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Nearly 60 percent rating the stress as high or very high, and one-third reporting symptoms of depression.

Then there are the financial costs. The AA estimates the average per-person Medicare spending for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is three times higher than those without the condition, and the average Medicaid spending 19 times higher for seniors with the diseases than those without. Caregivers had a total of $9.3 billion in additional health care cots of their own in 2013.

Current Recommendations for Maintaining Brain Health

It’s not like we’ve been ignoring brain health. There have been a few recommendations made. Most of us now know that it’s good to keep our brains active if we want to keep them sharp.

We’ve talked about it several times on this blog. Here are some of the recommendations we’ve passed along:

  • Probiotics: Early studies have suggested brain health and gut health are related, and that consuming probiotics may reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Weight: Neuroscientists have found that people who were overweight or obese were likely to have less brain tissue than their leaner counterparts.
  • Exercise: Studies show that regular exercise delays and could prevent dementia.
  • Downtime: Taking regular breaks has been linked with higher productivity and creativity and lower stress.
  • Supplements: We recommended several supplements that have shown some benefits to brain health.
  • Learning new things: We examined the typical mental decline after retirement, and how continuing to grow and learn new things promotes brain health.
  • Quality sleep: Some studies have shown that the brain uses sleep time to “detox” and ready itself for the next day, suggesting that sleep deprivation may lead to waste buildup and corresponding brain, emotional, and physical health problems.
  • Healthy foods: We listed those foods with some connection to maintaining a healthy brain.
  • Mind games: Though research is still preliminary, there is some evidence that mind games like puzzles and memory games may help maintain cognitive function.
  • Learning something new: Stretching the brain’s capacity to learn a new instrument, new language, or other new skill has shown in studies to help reduce risk of dementia.

Still, if you compare the studies looking at lifestyle changes that preserve physical health compared to those looking at lifestyle changes that preserve brain health, there’s no comparison.

“While much research has focused on identifying factors that increase the risk of mental illness and neurodegenerative decline,” stated Dr. Eileen Luders, study author and assistant professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine, “relatively less attention has been turned to approaches aimed at enhancing cerebral health.”

We know that to keep our bodies healthy, we need to eat right, exercise, reduce stress, and keep close social ties. There’s no one magic bullet that will keep us living optimal lives.

Similarly, it’s likely that a combination of things—diet, exercise, downtime, and learning new things—will help keep the brain healthy.

But if we’re looking for that one thing that may help more than anything, we may have just found it.

Meditation May be the Key to an Anti-Aging Brain

Wrinkles and sagging skin aren’t the only signs of aging.

If you had a microscope and a window to the inside of your brain, you’d see other signs like a decrease in overall volume and weight, atrophy in the brain’s white matter (that material full of nerve fibers that makes up nearly half of the brain), and a gradual decline in function.

Science tells us that all this begins in the mid-to-late-20s, which is why we’re so at risk of neurodegenerative diseases as we age.

Turns out that meditation may be the best way to keep a 60-year-old brain from looking (and acting) its age.

The most recent study pinned 50 people who had meditated for years against 50 who hadn’t. Participants were aged between 24 and 77 years. Both groups showed declines in gray matter (that part of the brain that is associated with intellect and intelligence), but the declines were much steeper in those who didn’t meditate than in those who did. Researchers stated they were surprised at how much difference meditation made.

“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” stated co-author of the study, Dr. Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the brain.”

This study doesn’t show cause and effect. It could be something else in the meditators’ lives that protected their brains. But this isn’t the first study to suggest that meditation has brain-altering capabilities.

Meditation Helps Improve Memory and Learning

Back in 2009, the same research team found that long-term meditators had larger brains and more gray matter than those who didn’t meditate. In 2011, they also discovered that people who meditate have stronger connections between brain regions, and showed less age-related brain atrophy. Researchers suggested meditation not only preserves the brain, but may induce the growth of communication pathways.

Back in 2005, researchers from Harvard found that meditation could help to increase brain function, reduce the effects of aging on the brain, and increase concentration and memory. Brain imaging results showed meditation increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex—the front part of the brain that is in charge of abstract thinking and thought analysis.

“The effects of meditation can counter the effect of age,” stated lead study author Dr. Sara W. Lazar. She added that she hoped meditation may be used to combat mental decline and perhaps even reverse it.

Other studies have shown that meditation helps reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain, and that it improved focus and memory. In fact, after just two weeks of practice, participants improved their scores on reading comprehension and memory, while reducing distracting thoughts.

Studies have also found the practice effective against addiction. One study, for example, found that smokers who learned to meditate were more likely to quit and to stay off cigarettes than those who went through the American Lung Association’s “freedom from smoking” treatment.

Kids having trouble in school? Have them try meditation. One district on San Francisco found that a twice-daily meditation program in their high-risk schools reduced suspensions and increased attendance. Even companies like Google and Apple are integrating meditation into their daily schedules.

But we’re talking about anti-aging here. Let’s turn it upside down. Just like taking care of the body benefits the brain, might taking care of the brain benefit the body?

Meditation May Help You Live Longer

In 2009, researchers suggested a novel concept: take care of your brain, and you just may live longer.

The researchers noted that chronic stress and depression had been linked with shorter telomere length. (Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes—longer telomeres are thought to indicate longevity. Read more about telomeres here.)

In contrast, meditation helps reduce stress, and is linked with longer telomeres. Researchers concluded that given the pattern of associations we’ve seen so far in scientific literature, meditation “may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.”

One study showed that just a single day of meditation calmed the gene that codes for inflammation—a key driver of aging.

We need more studies before we can say with any confidence that meditation can help alter body systems in an anti-aging way. We’ve already seen some early signs, though, and these, paired with the research on preserving an aging brain, give us every reason to add meditation to our daily lives.

Did my grandmother meditate? I couldn’t tell you. I know she ate well—food from her garden most of the time—and that she was active most of her life, still raising chickens and cows until the day she died.

I did often see her staring out the window at the maple trees and cornfields beyond her property. Was she thinking of something at those times, or simply letting her thoughts vanish into the high-beamed ceilings of her old farmhouse?

“If these are replicated results, this will be a really big deal,” said Kuth. “This could make a huge impact.”

Do you meditate regularly? Do you notice any benefits? Please share your thoughts with our readers.

* * *

Sources
Harlan M. Krumholz, et al., “Trends in Hospitalizatons and Outcomes for Acute Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke, 1999-2011,” Circulation, August 18, 2014; 130:966-975, http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/130/12/966.long.

“Cardiovascular Disease on the Decline,” Berkeley Wellness, November 21, 2014, http://www.berkeleywellness.com/self-care/preventive-care/article/cardiovascular-disease-decline.

Silvia Koton, et al., “Stroke Incidence and Mortality Trends in US Communities, 1987 to 2011,” JAMA 2014; 312(3):259-268, http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1887762.

Bahar Gholipour, “‘Astonishing Progress’ Made on Heart Disease, Doctors Say,” LiveScience, August 18, 2014, http://www.livescience.com/47425-heart-disease-death-hospitalization-decline.html.

“Demential/Alzheimer’s Disease,” CDC, http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/basics/mental-illness/dementia.htm.

“Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures,” Alzheimer’s Association, http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_facts_and_figures.asp#quickFacts.

FactSheet, “2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” Alzheimer’s Association, March 2014, http://www.alz.org/documents_custom/2014_facts_figures_fact_sheet.pdf.

Elissa Epel, et al., “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres,” Ann N Y Acad Sci., August 2009; 1172:34-53, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3057175/.

Eileen Luders, et al., “Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation or gray matter atrophy,” Front. Psychol., January 21, 2015; 5: 1551, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551/abstract.

Mark Wheeler, “Forever young: Meditation might slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain, say UCLA researchers,” UCLA, February 5, 2015, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/forever-young-meditation-might-slow-the-age-related-loss-of-gray-matter-in-the-brain-say-ucla-researchers.

Mark Wheeler, “Is meditation the push-up for the brain?” UCLA, July 13, 2011, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/is-meditation-the-push-up-for-210549.

Shai D. Bronshtein, “Meditation Shown to Reduce Aging,” The Harvard Crimson, December 16, 2005, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2005/12/16/meditation-shown-to-reduce-aging-a/.

Britta K. Holzel, et al., “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Res. January 30, 2011; 191(1):36-43, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/.

Madhav Goyal, et al., “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being,” JAMA Intern Med. 2014; 174(3):357-368, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1809754.

Michael D. Mrazek, “Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering,” Psycological Science, May 2013; 24(5):776-781, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/24/5/776.

Brewer JA, et al., “Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: results from a randomized controlled trial,” Drug Alcohol Depend. December 1, 2011; 119(1-2):72-80, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21723049.

David S. Black, Randima Fernando, “Mindfulness Training and Classroom Behavior Among Lower-Income and Ethnic Minority Elementary School Children,” Journal of Child and Family Studies, October 2014; 23(7):1242-1246, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-013-9784-4.

Carolyn Gregoire, “Study Says Meditation Could Protect the Brain from Signs of Aging,” Huffington Post, Febraury 6, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/06/meditation-brain-aging_n_6629858.html.

Jeffrey Kluger, “Get Your Head In the Game,” Time, February 23-March 2, 2015.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

1 COMMENT ON THIS POST

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Deane Alban says:

    I’m a huge fan of meditation. It makes me happier, more relaxed, and more resilient to life’s stresses. The crazier life gets the more we need it. I totally agree that prevention is key. I don’t believe there will be a Alzheimer’s cure in our lifestyle so it’s up to each of us to take care of our own brains. Most of us take better care of our car (or our hair) yet there is nothing you can do that will improve your quality of life more than taking care of your brain.

    Comments are closed for this post.