There’s often little hope to be found about the mind-robbing disease known as Alzheimer’s and other dementias linked to aging. But two new studies raise the possibility that there are ways to delay, lessen or even successfully treat dementia – including using non-drug approaches based on ancient meditation techniques and exercises.
Alzheimer’s disease causes nerve cells in the brain to die, resulting in a loss of memory and difficulties with speech and understanding. Now British researchers at the Babraham Institute near Cambridge have documented for the first time that the brain’s circuitry survives longer than previously thought in Alzheimer’s. The new research, just published in the journal Brain, shows how brain cells first lose the ability to communicate with each other before deteriorating further.
“We have shown that supporting parts of nerve cells are alive, and we can now learn how to intervene to recover connections. This is very important for treatment because in normal adult life, nerve cell connections constantly disappear and reform, but can only do so if the supporting parts of the cell remain,” Dr. Michael Coleman, the project’s lead researcher, said in a statement to the media. “Our results suggest a time window in which damaged connections between brain cells could recover under the right conditions.”
More good news in the fight against dementia: Another study recently published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias concludes patients diagnosed with early stage dementia can slow their physical, mental and psychological decline by taking part in non-drug therapies that combine counseling, support groups, and traditional Chinese martial arts exercises and meditation, called qigong (chee-gong) and Taiji (tye-jee). In fact, the researchers found many of the benefits of this approach were comparable to those achieved with anti-dementia medications (which often have serious side effects).
In a statement to the media, Sandy Burgener, a professor of nursing at the University of Illinois and lead author on the study, said researchers are discovering that multi-disciplinary approaches that address patients’ physical, mental and psychological dimensions show the most promise in treating people with dementia. “Most of the research on dementia and most of the dollars up until this point have gone into pharmacological interventions. But we have evidence now from studies like mine that show that other approaches can make a difference in the way people live and can possibly also impact their cognitive function,” Burgener stated.
In the study, 24 research subjects with early stage dementia participated in an intensive 40-week program of twice weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy and support groups, and three sessions per week of qigong and Taiji. Qigong is a group of integrated exercises performed in a series; it is believed to positively affect the mind, body and spirit. Yang Yang, a professor of kinesiology and community health and a co-author of the study, explained in a press statement that Taiji is a specific type of qigong that combines Chinese philosophy with martial and healing arts. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps patients find positive alternatives to beliefs and behaviors that can undermine a person’s health and happiness. A control group of people with early stage dementia did not take part in these programs for the first 20 weeks of the research project.
After 20 weeks, those in the treatment group had experienced improvement in several measures of physical function, including balance and lower leg strength, while those in the comparison group did not. In addition, the researchers also found positive cognitive and psychological effects. Both groups saw increases in depression, but the increase for those in the treatment group was only a small fraction of that observed in the control group that didn’t participate in the therapies. Although benefits didn’t keep growing after 40 weeks, but participants were able to maintain the benefits they’d already experienced.
“We saw gains in self-esteem in the treatment group and pretty severe declines in self-esteem in the comparison group. Those in the treatment group also had sustained and slightly improved mental status scores, which meant we were impacting cognitive function,” Burgener said.“Not only can we help people have a higher quality of life, but these treatments support neuronal function and have the potential for neuronal regeneration.”
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