Thursday, May 17, 2012

Can Mindfulness Meditation slow the onset of Dementia?

Dr. Colette Smart
 It seems to me that half the world (at least my world) is anxious to find ways to slow or avoid dementia, as we all march towards those "at risk" older years of our lives, or are concerned about our parents and others we care about who are already elderly.

So, it was with keen interest that I learned of Dr. Colette Smart's study at the University of Victoria focusing on the subject of dementia from a rather creative (at least in my mind!) point of view. Can applying the techniques of Mindfulness Meditation actually affect our brains as we age, and, hopefully, actually slow or halt possible dementia in the elderly? What a shocking premise....and it's exactly the hypothesis that Dr. Smart and her colleagues at UVic are examining in a study underway this spring of 2012.

I heard Dr. Smart speak on Mindfulness Meditation: A New Frontier in Dementia Prevention and Intervention at a UVic colloquium this spring and interviewed her later about her work as a neuropsychologist whose interest is in "self-regulation and cognitive rehabilitation" with a focus on applying contemplative (i.e. meditation) practice to facilitate brain recovery, or, in the case of dementia, to ward off decline. Her current study includes a control group of older adults who feel everything is functioning as usual in their brains and a second group who have self-identified as "cognitive complainers", i.e. those who feel they are "losing it" as far as remembering things, etc. and who may indeed be headed towards dementia.

Each group is divided in half and then exposed to either the techniques of mindfulness meditation (or learning how to pay attention to the present more completely and let go of certain anxieties) or to more traditional psychoeducation techniques (like studying the different types of memory and how to address decline in various areas). In a few months, when the study is completed, I'm anxious to hear the results! The participants have brain scans and other measurable markers (through tests, etc) done before and after the we'll hopefully learn if the meditation is effective, and really does result in new brain growth (through neuroplasticity). Pretty exciting stuff and can't wait to hear more in the future!
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