While the world waits (as it has been for a long time now!) for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, caring for the people with dementia and looking after the health of the caregivers remains a top priority. Pharmacological (medicine-based) treatments for Alzheimer’s are able to keep the disease at bay merely for a few years, or only temporarily slow down its progression. Hence, the research community is increasingly looking at so called non-pharmacological solutions to dementia care.
Being physically, socially and cognitively active are components of such non-pharmacological interventions. We’ve explored benefits of physical activities earlier. However, an intervention technique gaining prominence in recent years is meditation.
What is Meditation?
Most of us generically understand the meaning of meditation but a more precise definition of meditation is often difficult to pin down. Numerous forms of meditations have become popular such as Mindfulness, Zen Meditation, Kirtan Kirya, Relaxation techniques and Transcendental meditation, amongst others. Whatever the broader definitions say, most tend to promote some form of control of your mind to achieve a specific objective – such to relax, generate more positive thoughts or concentrate on something. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you learn to become more aware of your present moment, your experiences at this time, for example.
What’s the evidence?
Studies have found that meditation has the potential to change the physical structure of the brain. Increases in cortical thickness of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, spatial orientation and emotions have been observed. Studies have also found reduction in amygdala – a section of the brain that control fear and anxiety.
Meditation has been shown to positively impact levels of ADL (activities of daily living), depression, anxiety and quality of life.
More recently, in a randomized controlled trial, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) were shown to increase acceptance and reduce stress in those with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
What should people with dementia and caregivers do?
Based on the larger bodies of evidence any form of meditation including mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques could provide benefit especially in earlier stages of the condition. People with MCI have been shown to especially benefit from such interventions - opening the potential for adopting meditation or mindfulness as recommended interventions to manage the condition.
As with any new skill, an expert or instructor/content led program followed by consistent practice is necessary to develop the skill and gain any benefits. Enrol in a group program, an online class or a 1-1 instructor-led session. Use an app that provides structure, guidance and content. Whichever option you chose the key is committing time to the sessions, being diligent and disciplined.
Caregivers can play a big part in not just discussing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness with their care recipients but also identifying suitable courses that the care recipient feels comfortable participating in. Many online sources can help caregivers and people with the condition in getting educated in this area. Supporting the care recipient to complete the course and keeping up with the practice at home is a vital role for the caregiver.
Mixing meditation/mindfulness with other proven non-pharmacological intervention techniques such as physical activity, social engagements and keeping the brain active with cognitive tasks, can not only improve the overall quality of life of the person with MCI or dementia, but also help reduce caregiver burden and stress.
Caregivers perform a role that is inherently stressful and tasking. Taking care of your loved one constantly, while making you feel dutiful and responsible, can lead to fatigue, frustration, depression and poor physical health. Adopting meditative or mindfulness practices by the caregiver can alleviate some of these issues, improve mental agility and concentration and quality of life.
Can Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment Build Cognitive Reserve and Learn Mindfulness Meditation? Journal of Alzheimer's disease, Wells RE et al, 2019
Effect of meditation on cognitive functions in context of aging and neurodegenerative diseases, Frontiers in Behaviourial Neuroscience, 2014
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Holzel et al 2011
Meditation practices for health: state of the research, Ospina et al, 2007
Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness, Neuroreport, Lazar et al, 2005