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Meditation – its effect on cognition and general well-being

Meditation – its effect on cognition and general well-being

Meditation is the practice of training the mind to increase attention, awareness, and/or achieving emotional calm. At its most basic, a meditation practice may involve sitting comfortably in a chair, taking a deep breath through the nose, pausing for a few seconds, and exhaling through the nose. Take ten breaths counting at each inhalation and repeat for 10-15 minutes. Awareness should remain on the breath, and when the mind wanders, awareness is brought back to the breath. This is breath counting meditation.

There are many kinds of meditation practice including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Transcendental Meditation®, and Koan practice. There is little evidence that one is better than the other, and the best meditation practice is probably the one that is easiest to stick with for each individual. Evidence suggests that meditation may improve some aspects of cognition. However, there is no research on whether it reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s, and there is little research on meditation’s benefits in patients with Alzheimer’s. Rather, meditation is a practice that may improve general well-being.

The most studied meditation practice is MBSR. Developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is an 8-week program consisting of weekly group meetings and instructions for daily meditative practice. At the end of the program is a day-long meditation retreat. Some studies suggest that MBSR may improve attention, executive function, or working memory in healthy middle-aged or older adults [1; 2; 3]. However, most studies are small, and many are not placebo controlled.

In patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), one study showed that meditation improved cognition and reported mindfulness [4]. Another study in patients with MCI or moderate Alzheimer’s disease suggested that eight weeks of Kirtan Kriya, another meditation technique that uses a series of sounds, improved some aspects of cognition [5]. However, a third study in MCI patients suggested mindfulness meditation did not improve cognition [6]. However, all of these studies were small with fewer than 20 patients.

One of the difficulties in studying meditation and other lifestyle-based interventions is that it is difficult to have a good placebo group. Many meditation trials, for instance, use calming music or individuals on a waitlist as the placebo control. In most drug clinical trials, half of the patients are given the drug and the other half are given an identical looking treatment without the drug (a placebo – commonly called a sugar pill). A good placebo group is important because often when one thinks one is getting a treatment, one’s condition may improve because of an expectation of benefit. Likewise, some placebo controls, such as calming music, may have their own beneficial effects.

Although it is not clear whether meditation has a direct effect on reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, it may improve several other conditions that can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s. For instance, meditation may reduce stress or anxiety [7]. In addition, it may improve insomnia [8; 9], reduce cardiovascular disease risk [10], and reduce blood pressure [11]. Meditation is an easy and inexpensive activity that can be integrated into one’s life to improve general well-being and health. Luckily, there is an abundance of information online or in books on different meditation techniques. Several places also offer meditation classes, and there are many phone apps that can help with meditation practice. For a more in depth and scientific look at meditation, see our Cognitive Vitality Report.

  1. Berk L, van Boxtel M, van Os J (2017) Can mindfulness-based interventions influence cognitive functioning in older adults? A review and considerations for future research. Aging Ment Health 21, 1113-1120.
  2. Gard T, Holzel BK, Lazar SW (2014) The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1307, 89-103.
  3. Lao SA, Kissane D, Meadows G (2016) Cognitive effects of MBSR/MBCT: A systematic review of neuropsychological outcomes. Conscious Cogn 45, 109-123.
  4. Wong WP, Coles J, Chambers R et al. (2017) The Effects of Mindfulness on Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment. J Alzheimers Dis Rep 1, 181-193.
  5. Newberg AB, Wintering N, Khalsa DS et al. (2010) Meditation effects on cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in subjects with memory loss: a preliminary study. J Alzheimers Dis 20, 517-526.
  6. Wells RE, Yeh GY, Kerr CE et al. (2013) Meditation's impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: a pilot study. Neurosci Lett 556, 15-19.
  7. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM et al. (2014) Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med 174, 357-368.
  8. Gong H, Ni CX, Liu YZ et al. (2016) Mindfulness meditation for insomnia: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Psychosom Res 89, 1-6.
  9. Rusch HL, Rosario M, Levison LM et al. (2019) The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1445, 5-16.
  10. Levine GN, Lange RA, Bairey-Merz CN et al. (2017) Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. J Am Heart Assoc 6.
  11. Shi L, Zhang D, Wang L et al. (2017) Meditation and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Hypertens 35, 696-706.

Nick McKeehan is Assistant Director, Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. He served as Chief Intern at Mid Atlantic Bio Angels (MABA) and was a research technician at Albert Einstein College of Medicine investigating repair capabilities of the brain. He received a bachelor of science degree in biology from Purdue University, where he was awarded a Howard Hughes Scholarship. Mr. McKeehan also writes about the biotechnology industry for 1st Pitch Life Science.

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