In a review of research on meditation’s effects on brain power, a new Canadian study finds that a regular meditation practice can increase grey matter volume, a result which researchers say could have therapeutic implications in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The signs are clear: Western industrialized countries like Canada and the United States are aging, with seniors over 65 representing the fastest growing demographic. And along with the benefits of longevity come the risks of cognitive impairment and dementia, which affects 14.9 per cent of Canadians 65 years and over. The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada estimates the yearly cost to Canadians to care for those living with dementia at $10.4 billion.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, causing those afflicted to become increasingly forgetful and to have difficulties in orientating and expressing themselves. Mood and personality changes develop, as well, all of which severely affect quality of life and make caring for those with Alzheimer’s difficult.
While research continues on the prevention and treatment of dementia, finding a drug or cure for the condition has so far proved elusive. A range of medications has been approved to help deal with the symptoms — so-called cognitive enhancers, for example, have been shown to be moderately successful in slowing down the progression of the disease.
Some non-pharmacological interventions have been well established, as well, such as cognitive therapy (involving “brain-training games” and orientation training) and physical and social stimulation, all of which have been shown to lessen dementia’s symptoms and improve quality of life.
Now, researchers at the University of Guelph are helping to add to the arsenal of treatment options by showing that meditation and mindfulness training can have positive impacts on the progression of dementia.
Meditation has been scientifically proven to relieve stress and is used in a therapeutic context to treat anxiety and depression, among other illnesses. The new study shows that research into meditation has begun to uncover the positive impact that meditation can have on the brain, in terms of protecting grey matter (that part of the brain involved in cognitive capacities such as memory, speech and emotions) from degeneration and can actually boost the volume of grey matter. “Increases in grey matter have been observed in apparently healthy adults who were experienced meditators, as well as in novice meditators, after various types of meditation interventions,” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Researchers analyzed the results from 13 different studies on meditation’s effects on the brain, including two studies focused on neurodegenerative diseases. Both of the latter studies showed positive results, with one reporting improvements for individuals dealing with Parkinson’s disease and the other showing improvements for individuals with mild cognitive impairment. Importantly, there were no negative effects observed in connection with therapeutic meditation.
The researchers argue that further research is required on the effects of meditation on neurodegeneration and on the practical utility of meditation-based therapies for patients with dementia.
“This is a low cost and low risk treatment and prevention option for preserving brain tissue in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases characterized by brain neurodegeneration,” say the study’s authors.