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Yes, Meditating Can Reverse Cognitive Decline and Reshape the Brain. Here’s How

If you’ve been thinking of adopting a meditation practice, let this interview be your sign to start and perhaps give Kirtan Kriya meditation a try.

There are currently 5.7 million cases of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States and about 44-50 million cases worldwide. By the year 2050, it is projected that cases could surge in the US up to 14-26 million Americans and 152 million cases worldwide. It’s a dire prediction, especially because there are no drugs that have a substantial impact on the prevention or reversal of cognitive decline. However, a growing area of research shows that a new concept “spiritual fitness,” which focuses on psychological and spiritual wellbeing, could be key to a healthy aging brain.

In their recent review in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, from the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, and Dr. Andrew Newberg, the Research Director at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health- Jefferson Health and the Medical Director of the Veterans’ Brain Health Program, examine research suggesting that spiritual fitness can improve cognitive function. Specifically, they review research showing benefits of the Kirtan Kriya (KK), a 12-minute meditation, in  reducing cognitive decline.

Here, we talk with Dr. Newberg on connecting with our spiritual side, spiritual fitness and how everyone can benefit from starting a meditation practice. Plus, he offers tips on choosing the meditative practice that best suits your needs and goals, and what specifically is happening in the brain to promote better cognitive function and overall wellbeing.

What is spiritual fitness and how it can be used to support our health?

The basic idea is to think of spirituality in a health context. In integrative medicine, we always talk about the four dimensions that make up who we are as human beings—our biological health, psychological health, social health and spiritual health. Spiritual fitness really applies to the idea of how we develop that dimension of ourselves, the spiritual side of ourselves. Our spiritual health or spiritual self can be a potentially very important part of who we are and also a part of ourselves that impacts all the other dimensions, including overall health and wellbeing.

How do you define spirituality?

Spirituality is generally defined as the search for or experience of something that is greater than the self, usually something that is sacred. It could be God, a universal consciousness, or the entire universe. While spirituality is often linked to religion, spirituality does not have to be specifically religious. I see a lot of people who are atheists, and yet they still have a healthy spiritual life. Religion in their life becomes centered around things like creativity, or being in nature, or engaging in humanism and charitable works and things like that. I always remind people there’s plenty of atheists who live to 112 years old and plenty of religious people who unfortunately die at 20 years old — but if you look at the populations of people, having religion or a spiritual side of ourselves tends to be beneficial for people’s overall wellbeing and health.

Why is connecting to the spiritual side of ourselves an important part of spiritual fitness?

Our spiritual side is a wonderful source of coping and managing stressors in life. Many people turn to religious and spiritual beliefs when faced with any kind of stressor in life. Sometimes they are global stressors like a pandemic. Sometimes they are health stressors for an individual developing cancer or having a heart attack. They could be family issues or a divorce. They could be financial worries or work stress. When people have that ability to turn to something that takes them a little beyond the everyday part of their lives, that can be very helpful for allowing them to cope and even give them a better perspective on things. We recognize our place in the world and with that comes a sense of calm and hope.

You have done deep research in neurotheology — on how religion and enlightenment influences the brain. Can you speak to why a religious practice can be so healthy?

There is a lot of research out there that has shown that people who are religious or spiritual tend to have lower mortality rates and they tend to have better outcomes when facing cancer or health disease. I divide the mechanisms of action into direct and indirect mechanisms. Indirect mechanisms are those that have to do with religious or spiritual practices that ultimately have a health benefit. For example, some religions will tell you not to drink or smoke or be promiscuous. If we all lived like that, we would be an overall healthier population. Some spiritual traditions have certain dietary restrictions, like the Hindu tradition espousing a vegetarian diet. If you’re on a plant-based diet, you’ll reap the nutritional benefits of that diet even if you are not spiritual. Thus following such a diet as part of a spiritual system will lead to health benefits. Plus, the social interactions, whether you’re attending a group meditation or going to church, or even taking hikes in nature with other people, are very good for people. These are all indirect mechanisms that a spiritual tradition offers.

The direct mechanisms are more about specific practices that people do, like meditation or prayer, that are beneficial to people. Many studies, including our own, show the changes that are happening in the brain. There’s an inherent aspect to feeling connected to the larger world, to humanity, or to whatever you think of as “God” in your life, that inspires a more optimistic and positive perspective for people. And again, there’s research that shows that people who are more optimistic, people who have faith in the world, have a greater sense of well being and health than those who are constantly worried and stressed about everything.

Your recent research with Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa focuses specifically on Kirtan Kriya (KK), a 12-minute meditation that research suggests can reverse memory loss. Can you tell me more about that?

Kirtan Kriya is one way to practice spiritual fitness. Dr. Khalsa and I did a brain scan study several years ago, looking at practices just like this form of meditation and how it changes the brain. We saw improvements in cognitive function and reductions in depression and anxiety. These results were consistent with a number of other studies on yoga, mindfulness and transcendental meditation.

You write that older adults underestimate their level of life stress and early adversity, and kind of the impact that has. For some people, early adversity can affect their entire lives, but for other people, it seems like it catches up to them once they’re aging. Can you talk more about that?

There’s obviously a lot of different pathways by which stress and adverse problems happen. For some, especially when the brain is functioning at optimal levels, which is kind of in the mid-part of our lives, we’re able to regulate our emotions better. We’re able to regulate our ideas and our beliefs. And then as we get older, our circumstances change, but our brain changes as well. And so, it is certainly conceivable that something that we were able to manage at one stage of our life becomes hard to control at another time.

We talk a lot about our frontal lobes helping moderate our emotional responses. But the frontal lobes are also one of the main areas of the brain that begins to decline with age in terms of function. When you start to augment that with other stressors that are now occurring towards the end of life — questions like, who is going to take care of me or how am I going to take care of my family, or what happens after death — it can become overwhelming.

On the other hand, there are people for whom this is the opposite. They’ve maybe been struggling with these issues all their lives, in terms of emotional regulation and stress, and then as they get older, they have a new understanding of things and begin to universalize the human experience and see their place in the larger world. You’re bringing up the interesting concept of spiritual development. Whatever our spiritual perspectives are today are different than the way they were 10 or 20 years ago, when we were children or a teenager or young adult.

Some of the effects of doing this specific 12-minute meditation include general wellbeing improvement, like decreasing depression and anxiety and improving sleep hygiene. Can you explain what is happening in the brain while you are doing this meditation?

In this particular study, we found a number of changes going on in the brain, particularly in the frontal lobes of the brain. In a meditation like this one, you’re turning on the frontal lobes as you repeat the sounds and touch your fingers. Another area that becomes activated is the thalamus, which is a very core structure of the brain that helps regulate neuronal information flow. And so when you have these areas turned on, what that is basically doing is helping you better concentrate and regulate different parts of the brain.

When we brought people back after doing the practice for about eight weeks as part of our study, even at rest, their brain had more function in their frontal lobes, even when they weren’t meditating. I always liken it to the muscle analogy—if you lift weights, your muscles become bigger and stronger. Our evidence is really looking at the stronger part, but meditating can actually make your brain bigger as well. Long-term meditators literally have bigger frontal lobes than those people who don’t. The frontal lobes help regulate our emotional responses from our limbic system. That’s where we’re seeing the reduction of depression, anxiety and stress for people.

This type of meditation is different than the type that asks you to clear your mind. I’m sure both are beneficial though. Can you comment on picking the right practice?

When it comes to selecting a practice, the short answer is that there isn’t a clear way of directing people. However, that being said, it’s helpful for each person to look within themselves and think about their goals for starting a practice. For some, they start a practice to reduce stress, others may have a specific spiritual or religious goal in mind. Another part is to think about who you are as a person and what you feel comfortable and capable of doing. If the idea of “clearing your mind” seems impossible, then choosing a practice that guides your attention through something like a mantra might be much easier to follow through with because you’re giving your brain something to hold onto. You also want to think about how much time you have to dedicate. The Kirtan Kriya practice is relatively short, for example, so you don’t have to sit there for hours and hours doing nothing. Another popular form of meditation is mindfulness meditation practice, where you pay attention to the present moment and sit with your thoughts. This can also be very effective for the right kind of person.

What we know from some of our other studies is that the more you buy into it, the better your reaction and response are to it. So it is important to make sure that you can fully engage the practice whether it is meditation, prayer, yoga, or some other spiritual practice.

How long does it take for these changes to happen in the brain once you start a meditation practice?

The really good news is that it doesn’t take that much time. If I were to tell you right now that I want you to focus for the next 60 seconds on your breathing—I just want you to breathe in and breathe out very slowly—you’re going to reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and calm your brain down. That’s just what 60 seconds can accomplish. In our study, we did a brain scan of the participants doing the meditation for the very first time. We clearly saw significant changes happening in their brain.

Thinking about when those long-term effects kick in, like increasing the size of the brain as we discussed, we don’t know exactly how long it takes because no one has done a truly longitudinal study. Our study took place over eight weeks and we saw significant changes to the brain. Ultimately, it doesn’t take a long time, just a matter of weeks for changes to happen that will be more long-lasting. The more and longer you dedicate to meditation, the stronger those effects take hold. Those changes will result in psychological and spiritual fitness.

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