Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, NC, published a paper in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease that highlights their findings.
While the study was small and only involved 14 participants, the team found an association between mindfulness meditation and signs of improved measures of cognition in adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
No current treatments or therapies exist that help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease in people with MCI, which is often the first step on the way to this disease, but research into this topic is ongoing.
This prompted Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells to launch the study and see if there was another avenue to explore.
Dr. Wells is an associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, a practicing neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and associate director of clinical research for its Center for Integrative Medicine.
Mindfulness-based meditation may be key
For the study, the researchers recruited 14 men and women between the ages of 55 and 90 years who had received a diagnosis of MCI.
They randomized these participants into two groups. The first group took part in an 8 week course of mindfulness meditation and yoga, while the control group joined a "waiting list" for the course instead.
The study revealed that those who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) had improved cognition. The study also showed that this practice had positive effects on the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that plays a role in memory and learning.
Prior research has shown that chronic stress can negatively affect the hippocampus, potentially contributing to MCI and Alzheimer's. This study shows that there may be an option that does not involve medication or pharmaceutical trials.
One concern prior to the study was that the participants, due to the nature of MCI, would not be able to learn the new skill of mindfulness meditation. However, the researchers found that cognitive impairments did not prevent the participants from being able to learn and successfully use the technique.
"Until treatment options that can prevent the progression to Alzheimer's are found, mindfulness meditation may help patients living with MCI," says Dr. Wells.
"Our study showed promising evidence that adults with MCI can learn to practice mindfulness meditation, and by doing so, may boost their cognitive reserve."
Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells
MCI and Alzheimer's
MCI is sometimes one of the first signs that Alzheimer's may be on its way. Although experiencing some memory problems is a normal part of aging, MCI is a bit beyond what doctors consider to be clinically normal for people in the same age group.
Symptoms include frequently losing items, forgetting events or appointments, and having trouble with vocabulary, such as finding it more difficult than others of the same age to come up with words.
Doctors diagnose MCI using a few different methods, which typically include memory, thinking, and language tests. However, there is still no treatment available that can curtail the symptoms and ward off Alzheimer's. This is why further research is vital and why this study is so promising.
"While the MBSR course was not developed or structured to directly address MCI, the qualitative interviews revealed new and important findings specific to MCI," notes Dr. Wells.
"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."
There were a few notable limitations of the study, including the small sample size.
Also, two-thirds of the participants had at least a college education, which means that the group did not necessarily reflect the majority of adults with MCI.
The authors note that more research is necessary to help bolster these results, but they are definitely promising for those with MCI, their caregivers, and their families.