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The Unexpected Benefits of Meditation and Dementia

In 2013, my father was diagnosed with mild dementia. Fast forward to 2017. He is actually in much better shape now than he was even two years ago. I attribute that to a change in medication, as well as a positive change in his living environment. He has been a full-time resident of Villa Serene since mid-August 2016. The staff here are all amazing, kind and compassionate and I am deeply grateful for everything they do.

My father was the third of four boys, all born two years apart. They lived on a 300-acre farm in rural Virginia. So, he grew up spending a tremendous amount of time outside, most particularly sitting under magnificent oak trees. He tells countless stories of spending much time under these beloved trees.

My father will be 91 in mid-July this year. He is physically quite strong, albeit emotionally fragile. That said, he has always enjoyed a rich inner life because he is a retired minister. He actually took early retirement because he couldn’t handle organized religion anymore! I attribute part of that to my own spiritual journey, which has explored everything beyond the mainstream.

When my father retired to Prescott, AZ in 1986, he began a membership with Silver Sneakers. He devoted himself to daily exercise, which has continued to this day. I am convinced that this is the primary reason he is in such wonderful shape compared to so many others his age who also suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These two ailments are quite different, but that is not the purpose of this short story. (See other blog article posted here.)

As mentioned, my father lives here at Villa Serene Assisted Living, which is in a gated community about ten miles from where I live. It is a single-story home that is owned by my former next door neighbor, who is a native of Poland. So all the décor is quite lovely, homey and European. Because it is a family owned business, the number of full-time residents is limited to ten or less. My father is not the oldest resident, but he is the only one not confined to a wheelchair.

There is a lovely back yard with beautiful fruit trees, flowering bushes, a fountain, swing, walkway and several large shade trees. (You can see numerous photos in the gallery on this website.) My father proudly walks around the back yard at least nine times every day. He jokes that he does this once for every decade he has been alive! He finds the air “refreshing” and “invigorating.” I’m so proud of him! I cannot imagine what it must feel like to know somewhere inside you that you are slowly losing all that you hold so dear.

Frankly, if he cannot get physical exercise of some kind, it greatly impacts his mood. He simply MUST use his body or he gets quite agitated. This is where the meditation part enters the picture.

My father and I have become closer than ever before in our lives due to this illness and I am grateful beyond words for these precious moments. Since I’m a published author under a Hay House imprint with a book entitled, “BITE-SIZED PRAYERS: Non-Denominational Morsels to Feed Your Soul,” we actually sit and pray together quite often. Prayer doesn’t have to be verbal. Prayer can be as simple as breathing. Enter the mindfulness meditation or the walking meditation (around the back yard) or the breathing meditation.

I don’t need any research to tell me how beneficial meditation is for my father because I see the evidence for myself on a daily basis. He is primarily filled with joy for life, especially not knowing how much longer he may live. He is making the most of his moments.

In a research program at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, it was noted that both meditation and yoga engage different parts of the brain to improve neural plasticity. Techniques they studied included breathing, movement, postures, chanting, visualization and concentration (Friedman).

New research conducted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has shown that practicing stress-reducing meditation and yoga can actually slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and other dementias (Huffington Post, Post 50). They followed 14 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 with mild cognitive impairments for a period of eight weeks. There was a control group who received regular care and a study group who practiced mindfulness meditation.

After eight weeks, the study group was found to have less overall atrophy of the hippocampus and better connectivity in other parts of the brain associated with memory. A different study found that meditation has a protective effect on the brain, increasing protective tissues (Huffington Post, Post 50).

One thing in which my father excels is completing word search puzzles! Experts recommend that older adults with his condition engage in mentally stimulating activities (such as crossword and other puzzles) in order to reduce their risk of dementia.

Now, researchers suggest that practicing yoga and meditation may be just as effective – if not better – for protecting cognitive function (Whiteman, Honor; Medical News Today). This study involved following 25 participants ranging in age from 55 and up, who were followed for 12 weeks. One group engaged in memory enhancement training, while the other group practiced yoga and meditation.

After the study period, those who practiced yoga and meditation demonstrated greater improvements in visual-spatial memory skills – the ability to navigate and remember locations – than those who engaged in memory enhancement training. Additionally, the yoga-meditation group fared better than the memory enhancement training group when it came to levels of anxiety and depression, as well as coping skills and stress resilience (Whiteman, Honor; Medical News Today).

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Director of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, paying attention on purpose without judgment is the definition of mindfulness (Savlov, Ph.D., Steven M.; UC Irvine Mind). Participants in the MBSR program engage in 45 minutes of mindfulness meditation at home on a daily basis. Overall, research suggests this can produce marked improvements in autoimmune functioning, memory and cognitive processing, as well as a reduction in depression and anxiety (Savlov, Ph.D., Steven M.; UC Irvine Mind).

My father’s innate commitment to staying physically fit is having unexpected benefits. Again, I cannot overemphasize how proud I am of him! I think he’ll continue walking around that back yard every day as long as he is able! He’s my inspiration!

Works Cited:

Friedman, Jennifer D’Angelo. “The Benefits of Yoga and Meditation for Alzheimer’s and Dementia.” 23 02 2015. http://www.yogajournal.com/meditation/benefits-yoga-meditation-alzheimers-dementia/. Web site. 31 01 2017.

Huffington Post, Post 50. “Can Meditation And Yoga Really Slow The Progression Of Dementia?” 19 11 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/stress-reduction-alzheimers_n_4302777.html. Web site. 31 01 2017.

Savlov, Ph.D., Steven M.; UC Irvine Mind. “Mindful Medication: A Path to Cognitive, Emotional and Physical Well-being.” n.d. https://www.mind.uci.edu/alzheimers-disease/articles-of-interest/behaviors-mindfulness-biomarkets-stem-cells-other-dementia/mindful-medication/. Web site. 31 01 2017.

Whiteman, Honor; Medical News Today. “Yoga, meditation may reduce dementia risk.” 11 05 2016. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/310148.php. Web site. 31 01 2017.

Image:

From Google Images and from:
https://energiawellnessstudio.com/yoga/meditation/

2017 © Norma-Jean Strickland

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