COMMENTARY

Meditate Your Way to Better Health

Hansa Bhargava, MD

Disclosures

October 17, 2016

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Hi. I'm Dr Hansa Bhargava, and I'm a medical editor at Medscape and WebMD. Let's talk about meditation. Those who practice yoga and meditation say that it calms the mind, but research is now proving that it does much more. A pilot study[1] conducted through the University of California, Los Angeles, Australia's University of Adelaide, and the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation showed that it can be particularly effective in older adults who may be experiencing problems with their memory.

The researchers looked at a small group of participants 55 years of age and older, all of whom had mild cognitive impairment. They compared simple yoga and meditation with memory enhancement training (MET) to see the impact on memory. The 12-week trial included 14 people who meditated and practiced yoga and 11 who underwent MET. The 2 groups were compared on all demographic and clinical measures. Functional MRIs were conducted on all of the participants to analyze brain activity prior to and after the training exercises.

Final testing showed significant correlations between connectivity and long-term declarative memory for both groups. But, in those who meditated, researchers also observed improved visual, spatial, and verbal memory and lower depression rates. Scans confirmed this and showed that improved verbal memory performance correlated with increased connectivity in different areas of the brain. This was the first study to examine and compare neural connectivity and memory associated with a yoga and meditation intervention and MET among a group of elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment.

So, it seems that meditation affects cognition. Could there be other health effects? Actually, yes. Lowering blood pressure is also where meditation is proving beneficial. The American Heart Association has stated that transcendental meditation (TM) works to lower blood pressure,[2] and studies conducted at Lanzhou University in China bear evidence to the fact.[3] Looking at 996 participants in 12 separate studies, TM groups were found to have an approximate reduction of systolic blood pressure by 4.26 mm Hg compared with control groups. Diastolic blood pressure was also lowered. Subgroup analysis suggested that TM had a greater effect on systolic blood pressure among older participants, those with higher initial blood pressure levels, and women. In terms of diastolic blood pressure, it appeared that TM might be more efficient as a short-term intervention and in individuals with higher blood pressure levels.

Focusing one's mind in meditation appears to have a broad range of other benefits. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University showed that TM can also reduce inflammation and, therefore, overall health.[4] Their study was done on 35 stressed, unemployed, job-seeking adults who were put through either 3 days of intensive residential mindfulness meditation or 3 days of relaxation training. Brain scans revealed that meditation increased functional connectivity between the default mode network and the executive attention network. Relaxation training did not have the same beneficial effect. Blood samples verified the difference in the 2 methods by showing that participants who underwent the mindfulness training had lower levels of the biomarker interleukin-6 compared with those who participated in relaxation therapy. The researchers concluded that the mindfulness program seemed to help the brain function better through increased connectivity, allowing the brain to manage stress and therefore reduce levels of inflammation.

We know that chronic inflammation has been linked to a host of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, and Alzheimer disease. Using meditation and mindfulness as control mechanisms could be another tool to help our patients improve overall mental, emotional, and physical health and may have a longer-lasting impact on our patients than simply relaxing.

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