Alzheimer’s: the modern memory scourge with no cure and no lasting treatment options. The apparent futility of the quest for a pharmaceutical cure has led some scientists to examine the possibility of alternative therapies.
One method that has garnered particular attention in recent years is meditation—specifically those practices that emphasize mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation encourages practitioners to turn their awareness to the present moment and accept the current state of their lives and their being. Past and future don’t matter when one is truly mindful of their present selves.
Over the long-term, mindfulness meditation actually alters an individual’s brain chemistry and functioning.
A recent study has even linked the practice with positive neurological changes in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) a dementia precursor condition that often manifests in Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center conducted functional MRI (fMRI) scans on the brains of adults, some of whom were cognitively normal and some who had been diagnosed with MCI.
The adults were split up into two groups. One group received care that was typical for their health conditions, while the other group engaged in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—a program utilizing meditation and yoga to cultivate a sense of mindful awareness—for at least two hours a week, for eight weeks. The MBSR group was also advised to cultivate a daily mindfulness practice on their own for at least 15 minutes.
When researchers compared the before and after fMRI scans of the two groups, they found that those who’d participated in the mindfulness practice experienced less degeneration in their hippocampus, the section of the brain responsible for major learning, memory and emotional functions, and enhanced connectivity in their Default Mode Network, a neurological system often associated with daydreaming and memory retrieval. These observations held true, regardless of whether the individual had MCI or was cognitively normal.
While Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s first author concedes that the investigation was relatively small, she and her co-authors are encouraged by their findings. “MBSR is a relatively simple intervention, with very little downside,” she says in a press release. “If MBSR can help delay the symptoms of cognitive decline even a little bit, it can contribute to improved quality of life for many of these patients.”
Mindfulness in everyday life
There’s no one right way to practice mindfulness meditation. You don’t have to be sitting on the floor with your eyes closed and your hands in the Vitarka mudra position to reap the mind-body benefits of mindfulness.
All you have to do is direct your mind inward, focus on your breath and the flow of your body, and just be; honoring the present moment and your place in it.
In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes the daily practice of being mindful in this way, “Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred.”
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