By Elizabeth Morris, M.Div. and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
Although life expectancy and the percentage of the population that is elderly has risen dramatically since 1970, so too has the rise in the number of people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Some of the greatest risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases include chronic stress, stroke, depression, sleep deficits, and mood disturbance. Statistics suggest that as many as 36 million people currently suffer from neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. By 2030, this statistic may almost double in magnitude with scientists predicting that as many as 66 million people could be affected
Despite this alarming trend, substantial growth is occurring in research specifically focused on reducing behavioral risk factors of neurodegenerative diseases and/or preventing the degenerative changes that come with aging through mind-body therapies such as yoga and meditation. A notable example of interest is a set of studies conducted by the laboratory of Harvard Medical School researcher Sara Lazar in which changes were measured in brain activity, cortical thickness and gray matter with meditation. Gray matter is involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making and self-control.
The findings suggest an increase in cortical thickness in areas associated with emotional integration and attention among experienced meditation practitioners as compared to individuals with no history of meditation. In addition, the results suggest that meditation is brain-protective and associated with reduced tissue decline with age. A study assessing fluid intelligence and aging in long-term yoga and meditation practitioners found that fluid intelligence declined more slowly in yoga practitioners and meditators. Fluid intelligence governs an individual’s capacity to think logically and solve problems in new situations and often declines steadily with aging. In general, meditation was positively correlated with an increase in resilience and showed a slower rate of decline in brain functional architecture and a preservation of brain network integration. It is likely that we are at the beginning of an era that will see a substantial increase in research devoted to mind-body medicine on aging.
Positive biochemical transformation
Despite this growth in research on aging and risk factors, very few mind-body studies have been conducted on cognitive impairment relative to existing neurodegenerative diseases. A recent review study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2014 assessed seven studies focusing on a range of meditation techniques classified as both open monitoring and focused attention on elderly suffering from neurodegenerative diseases. This review concluded that meditation practices have a positive effect on memory, verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility.
A study on Kirtan Kriya, a well-known practice within Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan™, showed particularly significant improvements in stress, quality of sleep, mood, sympathetic activation and memory in adults suffering from cognitive decline. Kirtan Kriya was incorporated into an 8-week trial and participants who practiced Kirtan Kriya on a regular basis showed significant increase in blood flow to the prefrontal, parietal and auditory areas of the brain. Participants also showed significant improvement in verbal fluency, logical memory and retrospective memory, or the ability to remember people, words, and events encountered in the past. This mantra-based meditation apparently leads to positive biochemical transformation in the brain and activates areas of the brain associated with attention and exclusive functions (frontal area, cingulate cortex), while diminishing the negative impact of aging on the brain.
One organization that is at the forefront of promoting cutting edge research in this area is the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s by funding research and providing educational initiatives and memory screenings. Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. founded the ARPF in 1993, and the influence of his organization and its efforts inspired an invitation to testify before the U.S. Congress in 2003 to articulate the importance of lifestyle influences on Alzheimer’s disease. The ARPF continues to fund studies on the therapeutic benefits of Kundalini Yoga on subjective cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s prevention. The ARPF has research initiatives in California, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Sweden, and educates the public on ways to maximize brain function and reduce memory loss through diet and brain-specific nutrients, stress management, physical and mental exercise and spiritual/psychological wellbeing.
Kirtan Kriya is a viable prevention from cognitive decline
By focusing on Kirtan Kriya, the ARPF suggests that cognitive decline can be significantly reduced based on studies that show Kirtan Kriya’s effects including reducing memory loss, improving sleep, increasing cerebral blood flow during chanting meditation, down regulating inflammatory genes, increasing frontal lobe activity to significantly improve attention and concentration, and improved immunity.
Of particular significance, the ARPF is currently supporting the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) in partnership with the Ministry of Health in Finland. The FINGER study is a groundbreaking research project and the largest study in history to date on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. It will include over 1,200 subjects undergoing nutritional guidance, exercise, cognitive training and social activity. Research being conducted at UCLA and the University of West Virginia aims to show that Kirtan Kriya is a viable mind-body prevention for the millions who suffer from cognitive decline. Mind-body practices such as yoga and Kirtan Kriya may be highly effective in reducing the incidence and influence of the common risk factors associated with the escalation of neurodegenerative diseases.