There are many health benefits associated with meditation, both physical and mental, and it is a growing practice. Studies are pointing out that it may improve well-being and mental health in aging, and particularly reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease: an asset that could prove crucial given the increasing hope of life, which is a sign of an aging population.
Meditation is a great way to cultivate mental attention and emotional wellbeing. Simply sit in a comfortable chair, take a deep breath through the nose, hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale fully through the nose. Continue this process of intentional breathing for 10-15 minutes, counting each inhalation aloud. Keep your awareness on the inhaling/exhaling cycle, returning to the counting whenever your mind wanders. This is one technique of meditation known as breath counting.
Many kinds of meditation, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Transcendental Meditation®, and Koan practice, exist with little proof that one is superior to another. The most suitable practice for an individual is probably the easiest one for them to stay consistent with. Studies have suggested meditation can improve some cognitive abilities, yet there is insufficient data to determine if it diminishes the chances of Alzheimer’s or benefits individuals already suffering from it. All in all, meditation may contribute towards overall well-being.
The possible benefits of meditation for the elderly
There are specific questions about the health of seniors. Almost 15% of adults over 60 suffer from pathologies associated with aging. The number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease or other neurodegenerative diseases is increasing along with the increase in lifespan.
Keeping the good mental health of this public is therefore a challenge, and any preventative strategy should be considered. However, meditation’s real effects have never really been studied from this perspective.
In this paper, we present the results, and perspectives of a study conducted as part of the Age-Well project (Silver Health Study program).
A whole series of risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases have been identified: smoking, pollution, poor diet, physical inactivity, etc. There are several methods to counter them: exercise, cognitive training, a healthy diet (preferably Mediterranean), cardiovascular health education… These methods have been evaluated in several studies.
The research, however, has largely underestimated other risk factors, some of which are amplified with age: depression, stress, anxiety, sleep problems (affecting one out of two people over 60), loneliness, and exclusion from society. Furthermore, these psychological-(socio-)emotional risk factors do not have scientifically substantiated preventive intervention programs.
In terms of neurodegenerative diseases among the elderly, psycho-(socio-)affective risk factors remain understudied. However, depression, stress, anxiety, sleep problems, and loneliness have a real impact.
The European project H2020 Silver Health Study aims to fill this deficiency by studying the effects of meditation.
The European research project H2020
The European research project H2020, which involves eleven research teams in six countries, is to study the impact on multiple factors associated with aging and Alzheimer’s disease through clinical trials.
Three groups of 137 participants over 65 were divided into three: one receiving meditation training (45 people), one following a cognitive activity (here, learning a foreign language; 46 people), and the control group (no specific activity; 46 people).
A typical observation period in this type of study is 2 to 6 months, and the attrition rate (i.e. the percentage of participants leaving the study) is about 15%.
Results are mixed
Brain regions that should be tracked primarily have been identified in previous research.
As well as the anterior cingulate cortex, which integrates affective processes – emotional feeling, heartbeat – with cognitive processes such as reward anticipation, decision-making, and cognitive control, the insula (involved in emotions, interoception, dependence, consciousness…) also played a role.
Studying interventions based on lifestyle such as meditation poses a challenge when it comes to defining an appropriate placebo group. For example, in many meditation trials the control group involves either calming music or people put on a waiting list. On the other hand, drug clinical trials commonly involve one half of the participants receiving the medication and another half being given a placebo—an exact replica which does not contain any active drugs (known as a sugar pill). It is important to have good placebo groups since having expectations about getting a treatment can often create an improvement in condition. Even certain placebo controls including music may have positive effects.
It is not definitive whether meditation has a direct impact on decreasing the chance of Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are other conditions that can be helped through its use. Stress and anxiety levels may be reduced and sleep improved, as can cardiovascular risk and blood pressure. As an added bonus, it is economical and stress-free to implement into one’s lifestyle. There are many resources online, in books and classes that may help with learning different techniques. And if getting away from technology helps, there are plenty of phone apps offering support with meditation.