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Might meditation help people regulate their emotions and thereby help reduce dementia risk? Image credit: Robert Recker/Getty Images.
  • Researchers have recently investigated how older adults recover from negative stimuli.
  • They found that older adults prone to rumination and negative thinking display increased connectivity between brain areas linked to emotional and autobiographical processing.
  • They are now investigating whether mindfulness or “compassionate” meditation might help reduce dementia risk, since chronic negative emotions are associated with neurodegenerative conditions.

Studies show that older adults can more effectively regulate their emotional states than younger adults, as they tend to prioritize social and emotional interactions and have a positivity bias.

Existing research indicates that carrying negative emotions from one moment to the next is linked to conditions including depression, anxiety, and rumination, which may increase dementia risk.

Yet previous work on emotional carryover has focused on young, healthy participants. It remains unknown how emotional carryover affects older adults, and how positive thinking modifies its effects.

In a new study whose findings appear in Nature Aging, researchers have analyzed emotional carryover in both young and older adults.

The study found that older adults prone to rumination displayed higher connectivity between the post-cingulate cortex (PCC) and the amygdala. The PCC is linked to processing autobiographical memories, whereas the amygdala processes emotions.

“These findings help us to understand how empathy and compassion are represented in older person’s brains,” Dr. Olga Klimecki, neuroscientist and psychologist, interim team leader at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Disease (DZNE) in Dresden, Germany, one of the study’s authors, told Medical News Today.

“The findings also give us a brain connectivity marker for anxiety, rumination, and negative thoughts, which can serve as an index of how interventions work in the future,” she added.

For the first experiment, the researchers recruited 26 individuals with an average age of 68.7 years, alongside 29 individuals with an average age of 24.5 years. They monitored the participants via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they watched videos designed to induce empathy.

Older adults displayed higher levels of empathy than younger adults when watching low-emotion videos, and more positivity when watching both high and low-emotion videos.

Higher levels of empathy predicted an increased negative effect from watching high-emotion videos in both older and younger adults.

Crucially, the researchers found a stronger connection between the PCC and the amygdala in older, but not younger, adults.

In the second experiment, they conducted the same protocol on 127 adults with an average age of 68.8 years, and compared their resulting fMRI data with self-reported scores from rumination and empathy scales.

Connectivity between the PCC and amygdala correlated with levels of anxiety and rumination but not empathy.

The researchers also found that high PCC-amygdala interconnectivity predicted more frequent negative thoughts after watching high-emotion videos.

Age-dependent positivity effect was not related to emotional carryover in brain connectivity patterns.

The researchers speculated that PCC-amygdala communication might contribute to emotional inertia and mitigate recovery from negative social situations.

They wrote that this may occur via associations with personal affective memories, especially in older adults with higher levels of anxiety and rumination.

They added that as the PCC is commonly affected by Alzheimer’s disease, the observed changes in PCC connectivity may translate to higher dementia risk.

“There is a limitation in this study in that while we see a correlation in it, we don’t necessarily see causation,” Dr. Howard Pratt, behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida, not involved in the study, told MNT.

“To elaborate, while conducting the study the subject was shown certain stimuli as the functional MRI was observed, but you wouldn’t be able to correlate what emotions that person was feeling by just looking at the functional MRI,” he pointed out.

Dr. Sony Sherpa, from Nature’s Rise, not involved in the study, also emphasized to MNT that, as the study only had a small number of participants, the findings may not hold true for a larger, more diverse population.

“To really understand how effective better emotional management is at preventing aging-related diseases, larger studies with different types of people need to be conducted. Further, scientists and medical professionals must also consider that there might be elements to pathological aging that cannot be explained by emotional management alone.”

– Dr. Sony Sherpa

“A concern I have is that readers may get the impression that older adults, in general, are worse than younger adults at managing their emotion,” Dr. Mara Mather, professor of gerontology, psychology, and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, not involved in the study, told MNT.

“To the contrary, previous research indicates that emotional well-being typically improves through adulthood, with the lowest emotional well-being seen among young adults. And in the current study, the older adults felt more empathy and positive emotions when viewing the pictures than younger adults,” she noted.

“The brain patterns that the authors focus on do not relate to these age-related positivity effects. Instead, they are associated with individual differences among these older adults,” she explained.

The researchers suggest that meditation may reduce dementia risk by preventing emotional inertia. To test this hypothesis, they are currently conducting an 18-month interventional study to evaluate the effects of “compassionate meditation” and mindfulness on dementia risk.

“In order to further refine our results, we will also compare the effects of two types of meditation: mindfulness, which consists of anchoring oneself in the present in order to concentrate on one’s own feelings, and what is known as ‘compassionate’ meditation, which aims to actively increase positive emotions towards others,” they state.

“We know that meditation training has a beneficial impact on emotions and attentional processes,” noted Dr. Klimecki. “Having balanced emotions reduces the risk for neurodegeneration.”

“We also know from cross-sectional studies that people who meditate more often have brains that are better preserved. It thus seems that meditation can help reduce risk factors for dementia, like negative emotions, and positively impact attention in older age. Pertaining to brain structure, current findings suggest that starting meditation in older age might not be sufficient to preserve brain structure, but these findings are still preliminary, and more research is needed.”

– Dr. Olga Klimecki

When asked how meditation might reduce dementia risk, Dr. David A. Merrill, psychiatrist, and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, not involved in the study, told MNT that “[t]hese findings shed light on how emotionally distressing experiences have a prolonged negative effect on the aging brain, when compared to the young adult brain.”

“This is in agreement with the general concept of ‘homeostenosis,’ or the reduced ability of the aging body and brain to react to stressors and recover from stress,” he noted.

“When we are young, the mind and body are quick to recalibrate and recover. Not so much during older age. This is analogous to the balance beam of a gymnast getting narrower. We’re more likely to be thrown off balance by minor stressors, and we’re vulnerable to those stressors for longer,” Dr. Merrill explained.

“Developing skill at meditating can help reduce the potential negative impact of persistently elevated stress levels with aging. Meditation could have a number of beneficial effects on the brain, including allowing the ‘resting state’ of the older adult brain to return to a normal level more quickly, as it does in youth,” he added.

“It would be great to see these studies replicated and expanded to include older adults struggling with late-life depression and anxiety,” concluded Dr. Merrill.