#Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of #dementia. If you suffer from moderate or high levels of anxiety act today!
Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia
It is no surprise that anxiety at any age is not good for you, anyone that has experienced strong feelings of anxiousness knows how unpleasant they can be. But the recent revelations that there is a proven link between anxiety in middle aged and late onset dementia is shocking news. Details of research published at the BMJ Open website describe how over an interval of a decade, midlife anxiety is linked to increased risk of dementia.
“The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia”
Stephen Gene Morris
There are three issues that jump out of the report for me. Firstly that medium and strong forms of anxiety are dangerous, they should carry government health warnings. If you suffer from anxiety don’t let this report worry you further, take it as a sign that it’s time to do something. Secondly I don’t like the ten year interval between the reported anxiety and a diagnosis of dementia. It suggests that day to day living doesn’t return brain function and structure to ‘normal’ after strong bouts of anxiety, we don’t automatically recover from the wear and tear. But on a more positive note the study describes anxiety as a ‘modifiable risk factor’. That means you can probably do something about it!
Anxiety is not the only lifestyle or behavioral factor associated with dementia but the science shows it does matter. So if you suffer from anxiety what can you do? Firstly take action to roll back the behaviours that lead to medium and strong forms anxiety. As someone who has suffered with this condition I know that is easier said than done, but at least acknowledge that you need to do something. Meditation was the intervention that worked for me, compassionate meditation! It might seems strange I know, but by generating compassion I gradually dissolved almost all of the strong anxiety I had. The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia. Your solution doesn’t have to be linked to meditation, but if you only do one thing today plan to reduce your levels of anxiety.
Stephen Gene Morris is a meditation teacher and trained scientist, he has taught meditation to hundreds of students of all ages. If you’d like to attend a class or take part in an online session get in touch.
Several features in the media this week have giving some clear indications about the science behind keeping our brains in the best possible shape. Some of the advice falls into the generic wellbeing wisdom which now seems to be be associated with most health messages;
eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, consume less processed meat
take regular exercise
give up smoking
stay socially engaged
avoid stress, relax and sleep the right amount
keep the brain working with appropriate activity and brain training
The last item on this wish list is unsettlingly vague given that it probably has the most significant impact on brain health. For example how can we define brain training (as almost everything we do can train the brain)? What is an appropriate level of activity and which parts of the brain should we focus on?
“In one study the brains of regular meditators were found to be years younger than non meditators”
In today’s Guardian, attention was drawn to a key finding of the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging; that typically lifestyle and environment are more influential in our quality and length of life than genetic factors. This is also the general direction that brain science seems to be moving in with regards neurodegeneration. That although there are many questions left to be answered, limiting cognitive decline and reducing the risk of dementia may rest largely in our own hands.
Returning to the question of brain training, the big issue is to establish what kinds of intervention bring the greatest overall benefit? It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrow single task training such as Sudoku or word searches have a limited effect. Whereas maintaining high levels of brain activity and cognitive challenge are likely to keep a much broader area of the cortex young and healthy. The same principle needs to be applied if meditation systems are being used to maintain cognitive function. That the meditation or mindfulness method should be broad based and able to tap into both the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (task or external) networks. Activity in and between different neural networks is a key element in brain health and one frequently overlooked and poorly understood. To illustrate consider tonglen meditation, it combines compassion, nondual awareness and mindfulness, it allows the meditator to work with our internal visualisation and empathy systems. In addition it engages the important connectivity between introspection and external awareness.
Given what we know already about neurodegeneration, it seems likely that long term protection against cognitive impairment can be found in meditation methods built on nondual compassionate approaches.
No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.
How to protect your brain from dementia
This is not a simple question and there isn’t just one answer. Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms from a number of different illnesses, so different forms of dementia may require alternative approaches. However an article about how Jessica Langbaum keeps her brain young makes some points that we all can learn from. Jessica is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, so she knows a thing or two about reducing the risk of developing dementia.
There is an enduring belief that activities such as Sudoku or app based brain training can offer some benefit is the battle against neurodegeneration. But Dr Langbaum makes the point that any exercise as narrow in scope as single task brain training is probably too limited to be of significant benefit. So that while Soduko for example, might help to keep the parts of the brain linked to simple calculations in good working order, this may offer little protection against Alzheimer’s dementia. The presumption is that maintaining large areas of brain function at high levels of performance is likely to keep overall brain health for longer. This idea is often described at the use it or lose it hypothesis, that once we start to scale down the demands on our brain we may unwittingly increase the risks of permanently losing function and structure.
“regular meditators have been observed to have both younger brains and thicker cortex than non-meditators”
The use it or lose it approach isn’t an ultimate answer but it does give us some great signposts about how to maintain brain health. I have often considered that continued use of meditation into middle and old age by Buddhists may be directly linked to the anecdotal evidence suggesting lower rates of dementia in certain groups of meditators. Many long term Buddhists increase their meditation practice in retirement and can frequently be found working for a range of good causes in voluntary and paid capacities, even at advanced ages. There is research that suggests spiritual practice per se might have a preservative effect on cognitive function but I think we must also consider the more direct influence of meditation methods on the regular renewal of brain function and structure.
Many well established Buddhist meditation practices such as tonglen have been designed as mind training systems. Their original goal was almost certainly not to reduce the risks of dementia, but they have long been associated with increasing wisdom, clarity and compassion. From the neuroscience point of view this means the methods are linked to activity in several of the most important brain networks, such as those connected to empathy, memory, attention, visualization and planning. This is specifically why Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) has been developed with reference to reliable traditional methods and is also supported with research from neuroimaging and cognitive psychology.
The best advice we can offer to reduce your risks of developing dementia is to,
start early, cognitive decline begins in our late 20s
keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
stay socially engaged
stay physically active
watch your diet
try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing
Meditation for seniors. Meditation supports a healthy brain at any age.
Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain
Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) is a simple system developed by meditation expert and trained neuroscientist Stephen Gene Morris. It offers methods designed to improve brain health and slow down the rate of cognitive (brain) decline. Aspects of our brain function such as memory and attention begin to deteriorate in our late 20s, however most of us don’t start to notice any changes until we reach our 40s. The point of BRM is that there are a number of things we can do to slow or perhaps even reverse aspects of cognitive decline at any point in our lives, even at 60, 70 or 80. If you have the capacity to concentrate there is a good chance that you can make a positive impact on your brain’s function and structure.
Meditation is probably the single most useful thing a person can do to help maintain brain health. There are hundreds of scientific studies that show an effect on cognitive performance linked to regular meditation. A key point to make is that different forms of meditation lead to different effects. BRM draws together elements of compassion, nondual and mindfulness meditation into one integrated practice. It is a secular practice which requires no previous experience of meditation, it can be undertaken sitting in any chair that allows you to keep your back straight. It can be practiced in a traditional meditation class or through online training in your own home.
Almost all of the evidence from neuroscience, psychology and traditional meditation systems points to our ability to improve our own brain function throughout our lives. For example a major strategic review of research into strategy-based cognitive training in older adults, strongly indicated than brain function can be enhanced even in middle and old age. The crucial point is that no mater what your age your brain remains plastic and can adapt to the demands of brain training in many forms, particularly meditation.
Although certain cognitive functions may weaken as we get older, the science demonstrates we do get wiser. In some regards this offsets the gradual decline of short term memory and other processes.
Your brain, change isn’t all bad!
Getting old is not an illness, it’s natural, it’s what happens to us. Nobody flips a switch when you reach 65 to change the nature of who you are, and yet is seems increasingly that ageing is being treated as an illness or disability. As someone in my 50’s it is apparent that a number of my capacities are in decline, for example my eyesight. I’m not an ageing denialist, we will grow older and it will have an effect on our minds and bodies. Where I have a problem is when I encounter the fixed attitude that reaching retirement age is a point at which your value to society is dramatically reduced. This is clearly a nonsense and is part of the pervasive attitude towards the elderly in many contemporary industrialized societies.
To demonstrate the lack of science, compassion and common sense on which the negative stereotyping of older people is based let me introduce you to a well established scientific concept. Unless you work in an area linked to brain ageing the chances are that you have never heard of ‘crystallised intelligence’. We all know that older people may start to think a bit more slowly and reaction times can drops off. But this is normally offset throughout our 60’s and 70’s by a steady increase in experience based reasoning or wisdom! The total of our life experience leaves an imprint on our decision making and planning abilities because we have seen many things and generally learnt a lot. This wisdom is often referred to as crystallised intelligence, the ability to draw on long standing and established knowledge. In the view of many neuroscientists it can compensate for decline in the more fluid cognitive functions that we tend to see eroded from the age of 40 onward.
It is this ‘wisdom’ or life experience that many cultures revered and respected in parents and grandparents. The idea that people in old age may have stores of knowledge and experience able to benefit their communities, rarely features in discussions about the aging process in contemporary society. Yet we know that many politicians, thinkers and performers continue to play important roles in our lives into their 80s and 90s. Yes we will age but how we age is dependent on a number of factors such as what we do with our brains, our diet and the extent to which we take responsibility for our own brain health.
The latest research shows that women are more like than men to develop dementia but…. delaying the onset of dementia by 1-3 years can reduces the risks of developing the syndrome by up to 50%.
Women far more likely to suffer neurodegenerative conditions than men
Research from the Netherlands indicates that women at age 45 have a 48% lifetime risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, dementia or having a stroke. The risk for men at the same age is 12% lower at 36%. The headline findings of this large scale study are
“from age 45, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men are likely to develop dementia, Parkinson’s or have a stroke during their lives.”
This research draws attention to a number of important findings. It confirms that women appear to be more likely to develop dementia in later life than men, this is in line with existing predictions. Specifically that at the age of 45 women had a 26% likelihood of developing dementia, for men the probability was around 14%. That from middle age women have a 1 in 4 chance of developing dementia but for men this is about a 1 in 7 chance.
This study (Lifetime risk of common neurological diseases in the elderly population) was conducted by researchers at the University Medical Center of Rotterdam, it is regarded as so important that it has been widely reported in the media. The scale of the investigation adds great significance to the findings, the data of 12,102 individuals over a 26 years period provided that basis for the analysis. Recommendations from the report include the emphasis on preventative strategies at the level of population. This clearly supports a move to approaches able to delay the initial onset of diseases such as dementia. The statistical benefit for delaying the early stages of these conditions by 1 to 3 years, has been calculated at as reduction in lifetime risk of developing the disease of between 20% to 50%.
Put simply, delay the conditions leading to dementia, Parkinson’s and stroke for 1 to 3 years and your chances of ever developing the diseases may be reduced by up to half. This illustrates the basic principle that even small changes to lifestyle can lead to fundamental improvements in your lifelong health trajectory. Prevention of dementia should begin in your 40s not 60s. There appears to be little doubt that stopping or slowing neurodegenerative processes offers significant benefits to individuals and society as a whole.