“Spiritual Fitness” may preserve cognitive function in aging

 

“Spiritual Fitness” may preserve cognitive function in aging

 

It is estimated that up to 152 million people worldwide will be living with Alzheimer's disease (AD) by 2050. Thus far, there are no pharmaceutical drugs that impact either the prevention or reversal of cognitive decline. However, a growing body of evidence – including A new review in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, suggests that addressing lifestyle and vascular risk factors has a beneficial effect on overall cognitive performance. A new review examines research that finds spiritual fitness, a new concept in medicine that centres on psychological and spiritual wellbeing, and Kirtan Kriya, a simple 12-minute meditative practice, may reduce multiple risk factors for AD.

"The key point of this review is that making a commitment to a brain longevity lifestyle, including spiritual fitness, is a critically important way for aging Alzheimer's disease free," explain authors Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, Tucson, AZ, USA, and Andrew B. Newberg, MD, Department of Integrative Medicine and Nutritional Sciences, Department of Radiology, Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA. "We hope this article will inspire scientists, clinicians, and patients to embrace this new concept of spiritual fitness and make it a part of every multidomain program for the prevention of cognitive disability."

Research shows that religious and spiritual activity can sustain healthy cognitive function as we get older. The study’s authors note that today, spirituality does not have to be part of an organised religion. Spiritual fitness is a new arena in AD prevention, it melds basic, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. For example, psychological wellbeing may decrease inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and disability. Interestingly, people who have a high score on a "purpose in life" (PIL) measure, an important factor in psychological wellbeing, were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of AD than individuals with low PIL. In another study, participants who reported higher levels of PIL exhibited better cognitive function, and further, PIL protected those with already existing pathological conditions, thus decelerating their decline.

Stress and poor stress response management are correlated with AD decline and Kirtan Kriya (KK) (a 12-minute singing meditation that involves four sounds, breathing, and repetitive finger movements) has been shown to have multiple documented effects on stress, such as improving sleep, decreasing depression, and increasing wellbeing. It has also been found to enhance blood flow to areas of the brain involved in cognition and the way that we regulate our emotions.  It also increases grey matter volume and decreases ventricular size in long-term practitioners, which may slow brain aging. Studies in healthy people, caregivers, and those with cognitive decline found that the KK enhances cognition, slows memory loss, and improves mood.

The fascinating relationship between spiritual fitness and a person's overall physical and mental health is a topic of investigation in the emerging field of study called neurotheology. Early research focused on the development of models regarding which particular brain areas are affected through spiritual practices - such as meditation or prayer. Over the last 20 years however, there has been extensive growth in neuroimaging and other physiological studies evaluating the effect of meditation, spiritual practices, and mystical experiences. A neuroimaging study of KK demonstrated long-term brain change, during meditation and afterwards. Neurotheological research can assist us in understanding how KK and similar approaches can lead to more permanent effects in brain function that enhance spiritual fitness, according to Dr. Khalsa and Dr. Newberg.

"Mitigating the extensive negative biochemical effects of stress with meditation practices, in tandem with the creation of heightened levels of spiritual fitness, may help lower the risk of AD. Small shifts in one's daily routine can make all the difference in AD prevention," Dr. Khalsa and Dr. Newberg conclude. "We are optimistic this article will inspire future research on the topic of spiritual fitness and AD."

Reference:

Dharma Singh Khalsa, Andrew B. Newberg. Spiritual Fitness: A New Dimension in Alzheimer’s Disease PreventionJournal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2021; 80 (2): 505 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-201433

 

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