Spiritual Fitness: The New Dimension in AD Prevention

By David Hart, Ph.D. – Director of Clinical Services

For over 30 years, scientists have struggled to identify and develop a medical intervention to slow or cure Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. Although there are several clinical trials currently studying the effects of an amyloid vaccine that has been shown to improve cognitive and functional scores of patients in the early stages of the disease, there continues to be a dearth of pharmacological treatments for the prevention or cure of Alzheimer’s disease. Consequently, medical and academic researchers have focused their attention on specific lifestyle strategies that have shown correlative effects on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. A rather robust body of scholarly literature has provided some evidence suggesting that cognitive stimulation, a Mediterranean style diet, exercise, and social connectivity appear to lower an individual’s risk for developing AD. Older adults in the South Bay who have attended any of the Memory Booster’s programs I host, will not find this news as novel. But you may find the following of interest.

Researchers have long known the causative links between chronic stress and multiple risk factors for AD, including inflammation of the hippocampus, cardiovascular disease including hypertension, diabetes and insulin resistance, depression, anxiety, physical inactivity, sleep deprivation, and smoking. In other words, chronic stress accelerates the aging process, including age related cognitive decline. But did you know that meditation may counteract many aspects of the stress response and protect the brain from the ravages of increased amounts of stress?

Midway through the 20th century, Swiss psychologist Walter Hess, Ph.D., was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his description of the ergotrophic and tropotrophic centers of the brain; the former produces the physiological features of a typical stress response, including rise in blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates, and an increase in oxygen consumption. The tropotrophic center, on other hand, causes the exact opposite of the stress response; it produces relaxation, sleepiness, and withdrawal from activities. Herbert Benson, M.D., later found that the tropotrophic center is mostly activated spontaneously, but that specific actions could stimulate what is described as the relaxation response (RR), which includes the intentional promotion of comfort, quiet, utilization of tools like mantras, prayers, breathing exercises, etc., and a positive attitude. Regardless of technique, the elicitation of the RR has been associated with several general and cognitive health benefits from decreasing hypertension, and improving heart disease, to maximizing the upregulation of insulin pathway genes, which could help prevent dementia as insulin resistance may be a risk factor for AD. Meditation, it’s been suggested, is a systematic approach to actuating the relaxation response.

A recent article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2015; Volume 48), reported the results of a study that found spiritual fitness, including an intentional meditation regimen, was shown to be associated with increased memory scores and verbal fluency in certain patients. The study, authored by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, faculty member in the Department of Internal/Integrative Medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, reported results that suggested a specific meditation technique, Kirtan Kriya (KK), improved memory in studies of people with subjective cognitive decline, patients diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, and highly stressed caregivers, all of whom are at increased risk for subsequent development of AD. The KK meditation technique utilized specific actions that include allowing the breath to come naturally; sitting comfortably in a chair on or the floor; making specific sounds or chants; integrates specific hand and finger movements; and focuses on concentration. The KK technique can be performed by those of any age with memory loss and various degrees of impairment, with appropriate instruction and supervision.

The results of the study suggest that KK enhances memory and reduces AD risk by improving sleep, decreasing depression, increases subjective well-being, upregulates immune system genes, and improves insulin and glucose metablolism. KK also improved various forms of mental health, including lower subjective reports of depression, anxiety and increased reports of hopefulness and resilience. The KK meditation technique was argued to be safe, affordable, easy to learn in all age groups, fast acting, and side-effect free. It’s a meditation exercise that should be considered for inclusion as part of an AD prevention program, right alongside other potentially beneficial modalities such as diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and social anxiety.

For more information on the Memory Boosters program – a series of workshops that provides older adults with empirically supported strategies that may lower their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, now including practice in meditation – please call Always Best Care Senior Services and speak with Dr. David Hart. He can be reached at (310) 792-8666 or send an email to dhart@abc-seniors.com