While we are well aware that we are a long way from a “cure” for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) or any of the other manifestations of dementia, research is starting to suggest that lifestyle can hasten the progression of the disease or it can slow it. On the positive side, we may only be slowing a disease progression, but with more studies on interventions that help in this direction we could one day get to the point that Alzheimer’s will not be the game ender it now is.
So, the positive first. It is called mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR. Researchers have long known that stress fuels mental deterioration with some recent data showing that stress increases the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or AD. The research further shows that more than half of patients with MCI will continue to develop full-blown dementia within five years. Researchers at Harvard Medical School wanted to see if stress reduction in prime AD candidates could make a positive difference so they created a very small clinical study, what they call a proof of concept study.
In this study, they divided 14 individuals with mild cognitive impairment already into two groups. The MBSR groups received training in mindfulness meditation and yoga, and the control group received the usual care of MCI patients. Over the course of eight weeks, the MBSR group received a two-hour treatment weekly and were given 30-minute meditative audio recordings for daily home listening. Both groups were given MRIs at the beginning of the study and at the end. The experimental group had less progression at the end of the study than the control group, but the results were only just barely statistically significant (because of the small samples).
In fairness, the study was very small and lasted only a short time, so can we really say that everyone should get on board with meditation and yoga to slow cognitive decline? One of the researchers said it best when he simply stated that it couldn’t hurt, and that it might actually help, and it deserves more attention. Your call on this one.
Contrast this with research that we have been hearing about in which individuals with traumatic brain injury see an acceleration of their cognitive decline. This is confirmed by autopsies of the brains of individuals who have died. Those with a history of trauma have more deterioration than those who do not. But TBI represents an extreme case.
If you are a caregiver to an older adult, you might consider exposing them to meditative or yoga programs on a fairly regular schedule. And if your older loved one has any history of concussive or trauma events, starting earlier rather than later may be a good idea. Like the doctor said: it could help, and it will not hurt.
Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.