Could Meditation Benefit Cognitive Function?
Here’s what researchers know so far
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a four-part weekly series on meditation, including its benefits for pain management, mental health and overall well-being. The first article in the series is Do You Meditate? Here’s Why You Might Want To; the second article is How Meditation Can Help With Chronic Pain; and the third is How Meditation Can Help With Grieving.)
Maybe you can’t remember the name of the lead singer’s name in that band you used to like. Or maybe your concentration isn’t quite what it used to be, and you shift your focus to a second task before completing the first. That’s OK, scientists say. That’s normal cognitive decline, and not a sign of impending dementia.
Perhaps you’ve read that mindfulness meditation can help preserve cognitive function, and maybe even put a stop to some of the annoying behavioral changes you’ve noticed. Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice in which you focus your thoughts, feelings and sensations on the present moment.
So, should you sign up for a class? Taking up the practice likely won’t hurt, one expert says, but the verdict is still out on whether it can help cognitive function.
“No recommendation is coming from here regarding whether mindfulness meditation preserves cognitive function,” says Lis Nielsen, chief of the Individual Behavioral Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Bethesda, Md. The branch “supports behavioral, psychological and integrative biobehavioral research on the mechanistic pathways linking social and behavioral factors to health in midlife and older age.”
“We represent the science and ask the questions that need to be asked, and we’re still weighing the evidence,” Nielsen says. “The NIA is mindful that the public would like to know what to do, but it’s difficult to come out with a recommendation because there is no clear answer.”
Enough Evidence to Continue Research
Before you cancel your enrollment in that meditation class, consider this: “There is enough of a ‘there’ there to figure out what might happen if we looked at the impact of long-term controlled meditation training on cognition, but so far the literature and the studies — most of them short-term — are inconsistent,” Nielsen says. “Though we don’t yet know how or why mindfulness meditation might improve cognition, we do know it’s helpful for coping with symptoms of illness and for improving quality of life.”
Recently the NIA commissioned a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review the evidence for approaches to preventing cognitive decline and inform NIA’s investments in future research. Some studies, like one underway at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, include a mindfulness meditation component.
"Studies have provided some evidence that the brains of older meditators look younger than those of non-meditators and that long-term meditation might change the structure of the brain."
Nielsen explains that as we age, we all see a decline in our speed of processing thoughts and in our working memory, which can affect decision making, problem solving and occupational abilities. “Of course, we also see positive changes,” she says, “such as the accumulation of expertise and world knowledge. Whole fields of cognitive aging explore these changes, and we also know that not everybody declines at the same rate.”
Possible Long-Term Impacts
Because of that, and because mindfulness meditation teaches individuals to train mental processes, Nielsen says it might seem obvious to think that when practiced as a habit, meditation would affect our cognitive capacity long-term.
“Studies have provided some evidence that the brains of older meditators look younger than those of non-meditators and that long-term meditation might change the structure of the brain,” Nielsen says. ”However, we don’t know anything about causality. We don’t know, for instance, whether primarily people with bigger brains engage in meditation or whether any changes in cognition might be a direct effect of the training or a side effect of more global improvements in well-being and stress reduction.”
What about reports that meditation enhances creativity and even fends off dementia? “From my perspective,” Nielsen says, “though these topics generate a lot of interest, we’re at a more fundamental stage in the research than can back up such broad claims.”
Meditation may or may not help with creativity, normal cognitive decline or dementia-related decline, but one researcher who recently conducted a small pilot study on adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) found that they were able to learn mindfulness meditation and benefited from the training.
A Neuroscientist Studying Mind-Body Connection
Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells conducted that study. She is an associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, a practicing neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health and associate director of clinical research for its Center for Integrative Medicine.
When Wells completed her neurology residency in 2008, she was interested in the mind-body connection, so she participated in a three-year research fellowship in complementary and integrative medicine, to better understand the neurobiology behind mind-body connections.
While doing research funded by the National Institutes of Health through Harvard University, Wells heard Britta K. Holzel, a German neuroscientist, talk about her research on the increased density of gray matter in the hippocampus in adults who learned to meditate. Holzel, a yoga teacher, also teaches mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR), a practice known for helping people reduce stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
A Hippocampus Connection?
“I started thinking how the hippocampus atrophies in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and then about how the hippocampus seems to be important for meditation,” Wells says. “I wanted to take adults susceptible to dementia and teach them to meditate, to see if it would change the progression of the disease.” The study was small, just 14 adults.
Before and after taking an eight-week MBSR class, participants had magnetic resonance imaging scans, neuropsychological assessments and completed surveys assessing other measures of well-being. The study concluded that most of the participants with MCI were able to learn mindfulness meditation and had improved acceptance of their condition, self-efficacy and social engagement.
“We also conducted qualitative interviews at the end of the study to hear about their experiences,” Wells says. “We learned that cognitive reserve may be enhanced through a mindfulness meditation program, even in patients with MCI. Those are meaningful results.”
Wells suggests that the best way for anyone to learn mindfulness meditation is in a class, with an experienced teacher. You can also learn about MBSR through its founder Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MP3s and CDs, and a teacher-certification program has placed MBSR instructors in almost every state. Some hospital wellness programs offer the classes, so check with your health care provider.