Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia

#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
Could anxiety in your middle years make you more vulnerable to dementia

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

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Choose happiness, why not?

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. Sign up to the free newsletter  for all the latest brain health news and help.

 

Notes

Header photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com, embrace phots by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

How to protect your brain from dementia

No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.

How to protect your brain from dementia
How to protect yourself from dementia

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.

adult antique architecture art

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
  • stop smoking
  • keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
  • stay socially engaged
  • challenge yourself
  • stay physically active
  • watch your diet
  • try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing

 

Notes:

Photo of girl on swing by Artem Bali on Pexels.com, photo of Buddha statue by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

Getting old is not an illness; your ageing brain

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.

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Getting older is not an illness – Photo by meo on Pexels.com

Your ageing 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.

Meditation and brain health

Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.

Meditation and brain health
Meditation and brain health

The need to prevent dementia highlighted in latest research

The latest large scale research into dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke has confirmed that one in two women and one in three men will develop at least one of these diseases during their lifetime. The research offers insight into the long term health of people in their 40s. But in addition to highlighting the stark statistical probability of succumbing to neurodegeneration, the study suggests that delaying the onset of the these illness for 1 – 3 years may reduce the risk of avoiding them altogether by 20% to 50%.

It is widely recognised that a number of lifestyle factors can increase the probability of avoiding dementia. Stopping smoking, adopting a healthy diet and taking regular exercise have long been associated with improved physical and mental health. Recent scientific studies have also given the strongest indications yet that some forms of meditation might be directly reducing the rate at which a brain ages, enabling us to maintain full brain (cognitive) function for longer. We know that cognitive decline begins in our late 20s and early 30s. It will normally be visible by the age of 45. If our cognitive ability continues to shrink through middle age it can lead to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and eventually even dementia.

“one study revealed that at the age of 50, regular meditators had brains several years younger than non-meditators”

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation

Research has shown that meditation can lead to a slowing of brain ageing and an improvement to certain brain functions such as memory and attention. Although the understanding of how meditation is able to help create new brain structure is still at a preliminary stage. There is compelling evidence that some forms of meditation are related to maintaining, and in some respects improving our brain health. Although brain training (including meditation) can reduces the risk of developing dementia it is just one of a number of things we can do to live longer healthier lives. For a summary of the current advice on taking care of your brain visit the Brain Renewal website.

Smash dementia; why and how

Dementia has to be challenged on three levels. It presents challenges to current and future societies

Meditation, mindfulness
Does the stigma of dementia reflects unhealthy attitudes towards the elderly?

Dementia is much more than an illness

The slogan smash dementia is both dramatic and provocative but it contains three important messages that cannot be ignored. At first sight ‘smash dementia’  might appear not to make sense, dementia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms, so how can they be smashed? The key is to think of the challenge of dementia on three different levels, firstly the current suffering caused by dementia, secondly the conditions that give rise to dementia and thirdly the concept that links old age to inevitable cognitive decline.

Smash the suffering caused by dementia

adult aged baby care

It is important to acknowledge that some people diagnosed with dementia can live long and fulfilling lives, but this is not always the case. In its advanced form dementia can lead to great suffering, both for patients as well as their friends and family. This is the aspect of dementia that requires immediate and urgent action. If you search the academic literature you will find hundreds of thousand of publish studies about or linked to dementia, and yet there is still much that is not known. More worryingly what is known is not always being communicated. Although some general ideas about how to reduce cognitive decline are shared with the wider community, the advice often lacks  detail and authority.

“In 2015 over 110,000 people died of Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD) in the US, it is the sixth leading cause of death. Deaths from AD increased by 123% in the fifteen years following 2000. In contrast mortality rates linked to stroke and heart disease fell.”

Smash the conditions for dementia

Dementia is set to become one of the defining health concerns of the 21st century. In the next twenty years we expect to see the total number of people living with dementia worldwide increase three fold to 150 million. The human and economic costs of this scenario are without precedent, huge efforts are needed if society is going to cope, let alone provide appropriate levels of care. We have a conveyor belt with increasing numbers of people in cognitive decline ready to join the ranks of those already diagnosed with dementia. There is almost no information being offered to people in their 40s about what they can do to improve their brain health and lower the risks of serious cognitive impairment. What are we waiting for? We need to attack dementia, not simply upon diagnosis but at the point the syndrome begins its destructive path.

Smash the negative stereotypes of old age

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Queen Elizabeth II, 92
When my late mother was in her early 60s, she started to describe any lapses in memory or cognitive function as ‘senior moments’. Around this time she started to use a computer and demonstrated no observable indications of cognitive decline, and yet she carried and communicated the idea that her brain was starting to become less reliable. I’m concerned that we label older people as inferior generally and that the stigma linked to dementia is a results of negative stereotypes. As a society we don’t value older people enough, we don’t recognize their skills, experience and capacities. And yet there is evidence all around us that people over the age of 65 can make significant and meaningful contributions to society. For example President Trump is 72, Bruce Springsteen 69, Queen Elizabeth II is 92 and the Emperor of Japan, Akihito is 84. This isn’t a denial of the aging process, rather a rejection of the assumption that older people can’t make valuable contributions to society.

How much does science know about meditation?

The idea that a meaningful understanding of meditation can be reached through scientific research alone is being challenged.

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Meditators must engage more with science

Are meditators contributing to confusion and uncertain about meditation in contemporary society?

Meditate for improved health and well being
What do meditators know about meditation?

A significant amount of media coverage is dedicated to the benefits (or not) of working with mind. Frequently scientific studies are cited to support a particular position or opinions about aspects of meditation. However there is little public engagement with the science of meditation more generally. The last 30 years has seen an increasing interest in both traditional and contemporary forms of meditation and mindfulness. As someone who has received great benefits from ‘practice’, I welcome wider discussion on the subject. Regrettably the voices of practitioners are rarely heard in the empirical debate, even though they hold a significant body of knowledge not necessarily accessible to the scientists. It is true that many meditation scientists are in fact practitioners, I am a case in point. But I’m not sure that I can be a representative for, or of the wider meditation community with regards to my own research.

In every instance there are significant differences in the roles of subjective observer (practitioner) and objective observer (scientist). Within contemporary experimental psychology the quantitative, objective approach is generally kept distant from issues connected to actual real world experience. This makes the input of a large and influential meditation community essential to a balanced understanding of meditation. For example for a considerable time nondual forms of meditation were not being recognized by most researchers, despite the fact that duality is a central pillar of Buddhist teaching and a context for all related practices.

Traditionally scientific research is evaluated by other scientists through a peer review system. Influential research can remain within the maze of academic publications and scientific reviews for years. If a paper is regarded as being of particular interest it can be brought into the mainstream by journalists or other commentators. But it is also possible for research to influence public policy without a conversation with the wider community. In general terms I think people should be free to develop their own ideas about meditation. But it’s probably not useful for scientists to be evaluating what a practice is, without a clear understanding of how it is undertaken and what the meditator is doing with their mind. Published meditation and mindfulness studies can now be measured in tens of thousands (just check on Google Scholar). But the contribution of many of these papers is uncertain. Most studies report some ‘effect’ from a training in meditation, but when a range of studies are compared (meta reviewed), patterns are less than clear. In fact the methodological and theoretical basis of many meditation studies does not stand up to close scientific scrutiny. The relationship between traditional meditation and contemporary mindfulness practices is also somewhat confused.

As a Buddhist meditator (rather than a dharma scholar) my training has largely been based on challenging self rather than other. However as a meditation scientist a critical perspective is essential to both understand and engage with meditation studies. Many practitioners may feel that the scientific community are in a good position to inform society about the value of meditation and mindfulness. It is perhaps this view that has allowed meditation to be a partner in an appropriation process, both directly and by association. From my current vantage point, as a long standing meditator and post grad researcher, I can see a need for greater interaction between the meditation and scientific communities.

Meditation is by its very nature an experiential  practice, what happens to the meditator is of crucial importance in the process. And yet meditation research has been dominated by ‘objective’ scientific measurement. Broad acceptance of the need to better understand the experience of the meditator (e.g. the phenomenological matrix) has only been around for a few years.  There are almost no authoritative surveys focusing specifically on either meditators, meditation practice or the meditation communities at large. Even in strictly secular forms of meditation such as MBIs there is a need for a wider discussion about the processes involved and the relationship with traditional approaches. Mindfulness has existed for centuries in Buddhist practices but the terminology is evolving into new areas in a contemporary setting. Some teachers of traditional meditation now draw a distinction between MBIs as ‘bare attention’ and Buddhist understandings of mindfulness. Does this mean we now need to distinguish between different forms of mindfulness? Recent investigations has suggested that mindfulness research can be based on one of dozens of operational definitions. This confusion has in part been caused because the field of contemplative science has little input from contemplatives.

There are I think, three things that could be done immediately.

  • If as a meditator you encounter unclear information about meditation in your sphere of activity you may wish to attempt to discuss it.  A polite engagement is likely to be enriching even if your original thoughts prove to be wrong.
  • Those individuals and organisation regarded as stakeholders in meditation (traditional and secular), should offer greater public comment regarding scientific matters linked to meditation.
  • Finally a forum should be created where meditators and meditation scientists can come together to discuss the science of meditation. Not a limited contact between senior Buddhist figures and leading neuroscientist, but a dialogue in every community where meditators and scientists share this common interest.

Many traditional practitioners are taught  not accept teachings just because they come from someone who seems knowledgeable, like a monk for example. Rather to test the teachings for themselves. Given the known and demonstrated problems in the research of meditation perhaps the same logic should be applied to statements from scientists?