It’s hard to work up much sympathy for Biogen, makers of the controversial Alzheimer’s drug that seems to be struggling to gain traction among healthcare experts (who question its efficacy) and consumers (who can’t hope to afford its $56,000 annual price tag). The New York Times last month reported that third-quarter sales of Aduhelm barely reached $300,000, far below the $12 million Wall Street analysts had forecasted. Still, I imagine there are plenty of dementia patients — and their loved ones — who are holding out hope that the drug will eventually prove to be both effective and accessible.
Meanwhile, they might consider taking up a meditation practice.
I’d like to believe that my morning zazen sessions over the past quarter-century have kept my pea brain performing at some functional — if not enlightened — level, but there’s no way to really know whether I’d be worse off without it. There is, however, plenty of research in recent years suggesting it can’t hurt.
University of California, Davis, researchers, for instance, tracked the cognitive effects of an intensive meditation practice on 60 people who participated in a retreat as part of the Shamatha Project. The three-month retreats featured two meditation sessions each day totaling six hours. Seven years later, those meditators who reported practicing for about an hour a day “maintained cognitive gains and did not show patterns of age-related decline in sustained attention.”
Other studies, thankfully, offer evidence that meditative laggards like me may reap similar benefits from a less-intensive practice. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 2013 found that those practicing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction techniques for as little as 15 to 30 minutes a day exhibited less atrophy of the hippocampus — which plays a key role in memory — than those in a control group.
And a 2020 meta-review of 19 studies published between 1997 and 2018 concluded that meditation may be a viable intervention option for people suffering from dementia, echoing the conclusions of a similar 2019 analysis, which noted, “All studies reported significant findings or trends toward significance in a broad range of measures, including a reduction of cognitive decline, reduction in perceived stress, increase in quality of life, as well as increases in functional connectivity, percent volume brain change, and cerebral blood flow in areas of the cortex.”
It’s all about “spiritual fitness” and its ability to mitigate the harmful effects of stress in the body, according to the authors of a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, and Andrew Newberg, MD, reviewed numerous studies focusing on the link between cognitive function and stress while noting the particularly salutary effects of a 12-minute singing meditative practice known as Kirtan Kriya (KK).
The technique, which involves chanting, breathing, and repetitive finger movements, has been shown to “specifically reverse memory loss,” the authors claim. “KK increases blood flow to multiple brain anatomical areas that are involved in cognition and emotional regulation, including the hippocampus, anterior and posterior cingulate gyrus, frontal lobes, and prefrontal cortex.”
I am reflexively skeptical of miracle cures, whether they emerge from the spiritual or pharmaceutical realms. And, as people smarter than me have noted, few of these studies included enough participants or accounted for enough variables to make a credible case. Of course, Biogen encountered the same criticism when it struggled to persuade an FDA panel that Aduhelm would make a real difference for Alzheimer’s patients.
Don’t shed any tears for this Big Pharma player, though. I’m sure it will eventually find a way to convince public and private insurers to subsidize the exorbitant cost of the treatment. It’s just the way the system works. And if the drug actually manages to slow the inexorable march of dementia in some patients, those efforts will be roundly cheered.
If I’ve learned anything from the Buddha, however, it’s that we need to see the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. So, tomorrow morning I’ll unfold my mat and sit — without expectations — and see if my aging brain will cooperate.