We have an ageing population in the UK. This means the proportion of older people is increasing. While living longer might be desirable, it is true that many older people have a decline in brain function. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is a major cause of death in the UK. This fact highlights the need to consider how to delay or prevent an age-related decline in brain health. Not only for individuals but as a population, to minimise the burden of cognitive decline on individuals, family members, caregivers and society as a whole. So, there is a great deal of ongoing research trying to find out what, if anything, we can do. This study from 2018 suggests that there may be something that we can all do to help our brains. And that something is… meditation.
Life expectancy is improving. Yet healthy life expectancy may not be. A longer lifespan can mean more years of health, or more years of chronic disease. And, the reality is that in the UK the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is increasing rapidly. However, it’s not just that people are living longer and so are more likely to develop dementia. There are other reasons for a decline in brain health, such as poor sleep. For instance, we know that strong emotions, stress, worry, depression and anxiety can all affect our sleep. These emotions also affect how well we think, learn or remember things. But these emotional states are also associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Though there are many ways to practice meditation, most studies use mindfulness based meditation practice. This practice dates back thousands of years, and involves training yourself to be present in the moment. Quieting the mind, whilst being aware of thoughts, actions or emotions, without feeling the need to act on them. And, there is promising evidence that regular practice improves general wellbeing. Scientists have found regular meditation practice can help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Statistics suggest that up to half of older adults do not sleep well, and as many as one in seven may suffer from depression. Worse still, around 10% of elderly people may suffer from dementia, for which doctors have no curative treatment.
In fact, strong emotions don’t just affect wellbeing, they cause changes in brain structure and function, which increase the risk of dementia. But, is it be possible that stress management techniques might reduce that potential risk? Researchers think this might be the case. Until now there have only been a small number of studies carried out. Yet, those that are available do provide promising evidence to support the theory.
What this 2018 study suggests is that regular meditation can be a useful aid that may reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia, generally improve the quality of life, and increase healthy life years.
Studies of young and middle aged adults showed that those who meditate have improvements in brain structure and function, which may help to delay brain ageing. Literally, on brain scans, people who meditate lose less grey matter of the brain, compared to people that do not meditate.
What’s more it seems that the effect that meditation has on the brain is on the parts of the brain that are most sensitive to early Alzheimer’s disease. So, while attention span and memory often decline with age, researchers believe their findings show that regular meditative practice may help to delay these changes and help to preserve our brain.