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Being purposeful about “thinking in the moment” can help older adults better cope with mild cognitive impairment, according to a pilot study led by a Wake Forest Baptist Health researcher and neurologist.

The study has been published in the current issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Research has demonstrated that high levels of chronic stress negatively impact the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning. High levels of stress are associated with increased incidence of MCI and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers tout what they call “mindfulness meditation” as a safe non-pharmacological treatment for mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

They define mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment.”

“Until treatment options that can prevent the progression to Alzheimer’s are found, mindfulness meditation may help patients living with MCI,” said Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells, associate professor of neurology with Wake Forest Baptist and associate director of clinical research for its Center for Integrative Medicine.

“Our study showed promising evidence that adults with MCI can learn to practice mindfulness meditation, and by doing so may boost their cognitive reserve.”

Wells said “the concept of mindfulness meditation is simple, the practice itself requires complex cognitive processes, discipline and commitment.”

However, she added the complexity should not be a roadblock for applying mindfulness thinking. Study participants who practiced at least 20 minutes a day were most likely to have understood the underlying concepts of mindfulness.

Other studies have indicated that non-drug interventions, such as aerobic exercise, can have positive effects on cognition, stress levels and the brain.

Researchers enlisted 14 men and women between ages 55 and 90 with clinically diagnosed MCI for the study.

They randomized them to either an eight-week course involving mindfulness meditation and yoga or a “waiting list” control group.

The nine participants who completed the mindfulness meditation program showed trends toward improvements on measures of cognition and well-being. They experienced positive impacts on the hippocampus, as well as other areas of the brain associated with cognitive decline.

“While the course was not developed or structured to directly address MCI, the qualitative interviews revealed new and important findings specific to MCI,” Wells said.

“The participants’ comments and ratings showed that most of them were able to learn the key tenets of mindfulness, demonstrating that the memory impairment of MCI does not preclude learning such skills.”

Researchers cautioned that the results “may not generalize to all patients with MCI, as two-thirds of the participants in this study had a college education or more.”

The research was originally conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Harvard Medical School.

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