Meditation and music may improve memory of those at-risk for Alzheimer’s Disease

Kim Innes, a professor in the WVU School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, researches the effects of meditation on various populations, including individuals who exhibit signs of subjective cognitive decline. The condition often precedes Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

September is World Alzheimer’s Month, and subjective cognitive decline, or SCD, can be a warning sign for the disease. Symptoms can include losing one’s train of thought, forgetting the content of a movie soon after the credits roll and feeling overwhelmed when making plans or coordinating events.

Kim Innes, an epidemiology professor from the West Virginia University School of Public Health, and her team are studying the potential benefits of a simple meditation or music listening practice for improving memory and cognitive functioning, as well as mood, sleep and quality of life in adults with subjective cognitive decline, or SCD.

Patients with the condition also demonstrate brain changes associated with developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Yet there are no approved therapies for subjective cognitive decline, and effective treatments to delay, halt or reverse Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias remain elusive.

Innes’ study was a controlled trial of 60 older adults with subjective cognitive decline. Researchers randomly assigned either a beginner chanting meditation practice called “Kirtan Kriya” or a music-listening program to participants.

Following instruction in their respective programs, participants were asked to practice 12 minutes a day, seated comfortably with eyes closed, for the first 12 weeks, then as often as they wished for the following three months. To help guide their practice, those in the meditation group received an instructional brochure and a six-track meditation CD designed specifically for the study.

Likewise, participants in the music-listening group were given a program brochure and a CD of relaxing 12-minute instrumental selections by six classical composers. Eighty-eight percent of participants completed the six-month study.

Researchers assessed participant memory and cognitive performance, as well as mood, stress, sleep and quality of life at three points: when the study began, following completion of the 12-week intervention period and six months later. At three months, participants in both groups showed significant improvement in all measures of memory and cognitive performance. These gains were sustained—or, in some cases, even increased—six months out.

For example, at the study’s outset, average participant scores on the memory-functioning questionnaire were similar to those of adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Six months later, their scores had dramatically improved, with averages comparable to those of community-based samples of cognitively intact older adults.

In addition, of the 25 participants who indicated elevated risk for dementia at the start of the study, only seven remained in the at-risk range six months later. Participants in both groups also showed marked improvements in mood, sleep, stress, well-being and quality of life, although gains were greater in the meditation group.

“While this is only one study, these findings suggest these simple mind-body practices may be helpful in those with concerns about their memory,” Innes said. “Given the potential benefits, coupled with the fact that these practices are safe, low cost and relatively easy to learn and perform, meditation and music may be of interest to all adults interested in maintaining or improving their memory, health and well-being, including those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions.

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