Meditation is commonly used to reduce stress and provide a sense of well-being. Now researchers are finding that meditation may be indirectly useful against Alzheimer’s disease as well. Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that teaching people to do meditation reduced stress among those who cared for someone with Alzheimer’s. Meditation also made seniors feel less lonely and isolated, which has been linked to an increased risk of developing the disease.
In one study, UCLA researchers followed-up on earlier findings showing that meditation eased stress levels in those who cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and looked for physical changes indicating improved health.
“We know that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression,” said Dr. Helen Lavretsky, senior author and a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. “On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent. Caregivers are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress,” and many are at increased risk of heart disease and other life-threatening ailments.
She and her team recruited 45 men and women who were caring for a family member with dementia. The caregivers were divided into two groups. One group was taught a brief, 12-minute yoga practice called Kirtan Kriya that included an ancient chanting meditation, which was performed every day at the same time for eight weeks. The other group was asked to relax in a quiet place with their eyes closed while listening to music on a relaxation CD, also for 12 minutes daily for eight weeks. Blood samples were taken at the beginning of the study and again at the end of the study.
After eight weeks of daily chanting, the meditation group showed clear reductions in levels of various proteins linked to inflammation. Increasingly, inflammation is recognized as a contributor to the development of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease.
“This is encouraging news,” Dr. Lavretsky said. “Caregivers often don’t have the time, energy or contacts that could bring them a little relief from the stress of taking care of a loved one with dementia, so practicing a brief form of yogic meditation, which is easy to learn, is a useful tool.” The findings were published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
For the second study, which appeared in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, researchers looked at 40 older adults ranging in age from 55 to 85. Half were taught mindfulness meditation, a type of Buddhist meditation that promotes being mindful of the present moment and letting go off worries relating to the past or future. The meditators attended weekly two-hour meetings in which they learned the techniques of mindfulness, including awareness and breathing techniques. They also practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a single, daylong retreat. The other half did not meditate.
The researchers found that practicing mindfulness meditation reduced feelings of loneliness in seniors. Many elderly people are prone to loneliness, which has been linked to poor health and an increased risk of heart disease, depression and Alzheimer’s.
Meditation also reduced levels of inflammatory proteins. “Our work presents the first evidence showing that a psychological intervention that decreases loneliness also reduces” markers for inflammation, said Dr. Steve Cole, professor of medicine at UCLA. “If this is borne out by further research, mindfulness-based stress reduction could be a valuable tool to improve the quality of life for many elderly people,” including those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.
The results “add to a growing body of research that is showing the positive benefits of a variety of meditative techniques, including tai chi and yoga,” said Dr. Michael Irwin, a study author and professor of psychiatry at UCLA. “These studies begin to move us beyond simply connecting the mind and genome, and identify simple practices that an individual can harness to improve human health.”
Source: UCLA. Black DS, Cole SW, Irwin MR, et al: Yogic meditation reverses NF-kappaB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology. July 13, 2012.
Creswell JD, Irwin MR, Burklund LJ, et al: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior and Immunity, July 20, 2012.