Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness abilities may predict cognition level and lower risk of dementia in later life

– A conversation with a ‘medit-ageing’ researcher

Crosswords, going for a run, eating blueberries… these are cited as protectors against Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent brain disease of the 21st century. Yet, an activity that is often overlooked, but powerful for shielding the ageing brain, is meditation.

This topic was the subject of Anne-Sophia Hendy’s research project on meditation and cognition, part of the EU-Funded Silver Santé study. I had the wonderful opportunity to ask her about some of her groundbreaking results.

“The research looked at a group of around 140 people aged 65 or over from across Europe. We measured their cognitive abilities as well as their capacity to be mindful. What we found was a strong positive link between mindfulness qualities and intelligence level in later life. And this is taking into account variables such as educational level or socio-economic status.”

“The cognitive abilities we measured included memory and global cognition which are strongly sensitive to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Basically, the study demonstrates a possible protective action of mindfulness against Alzheimer’s.”

“How do you define mindfulness? I ask, “a term that seems to encapsulate many different practices?”. I think back to images of yogis and Buddhist monks.  I also record times walking in nature and focusing on my surroundings… »Isn’t that also a form of mindfulness?’, I ask, optimistically.

‘The impressive takeaway from this study is that the findings were based on a group of people that we call non-expert meditators, meaning that they only have very little life-long meditative practice.’ So, no need to be Eckart Tolle to experience mindfulness qualities’ beneficial effects on cognition.

According to Anne-Sophia, there are many ways of defining mindfulness capacity. In her study, she broke it down into different categories.

“For example, we looked at attentional mindfulness, or the capacity to place your focus on different tasks. We also had demonstrative mindfulness – that’s the ability to distance yourself from a thought. So, if you have a thought like ‘oh I’m stupid’, it’s about seeing things as ‘well, maybe that’s just not me, and maybe I can just decide to see it as a passing thought.’”.

Speaking of thoughts, I have a nagging one. Having often jokingly described myself as being ADHD because of my difficulty focusing, my mind turns to all those children with a clinical diagnosis of the disorder, “are these people doomed to be less protected against Alzheimer’s because of less attentional capacity?”.

Anne-Sophia explains that attentional mindfulness is not about the ability to get engrossed in a particular task for a long period of time. Rather, it’s about having the freedom to place your attention on the tasks you want to be doing.

She also insists that the beauty of these findings lies in the fact that everyone can learn to be more mindful, even those with concentration difficulties. Studies increasingly show that mindfulness qualities can be acquired very rapidly, starting with only a couple of minutes or hours of practice a week.

I ask if the study implies that expert meditators, of the ‘spend-5-hours-a-day-on-the-cushion’ sort, have a bullet-proof vest against dementia.

Anne-Sophia says that some evidence may show that the more we meditate, the higher the protective effects on cognition. But other environmental and genetic factors are of course at play in the development of dementia.

She also says that no causal link can be established for now. “The study is only strongly indicative a possible effect, but this needs to be substantiated by further studies of different types. But this all very exciting and promising. Especially given all of the other positive effects of mindfulness on mental and physical health along the life-course”.

What is inspiring about Anne-Sophia’s work is that meditation’s positive effects on cognition seem to stem from our general ability to apply mindfulness to our day-to-day life. So, the idea is not necessarily to spend X hours meditating on Headspace or watching daily ‘yoga with Adrienne’ videos. It’s about understanding and applying the principles of mindfulness to your day-to-day life. And this is where teachers or meditation mentors come in handy. They can be very helpful for truly inhabiting the spiritual lifestyle. More info to book a one-to-one free session in Brussels or online at Bruxelles Méditation can be found here.

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