Throughout past centuries, meditation has been used as a method for staying centered and spiritually connected, which in turn reduces chronic stress. This connectedness is often called spiritual fitness. It's known that chronic stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer's. Could spiritual fitness, along with diet, exercise, brain fitness and socialization be a path to reducing our Alzheimer’s risk? Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.,
who is president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation and a clinical associate professor of integrative medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, thinks so.
Dr. Khalsa’s article, “Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Prevention: Where the Evidence Stands,” which has been published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, proves his point to the scientific community. In this two part interview, Dr. Khalsa teaches us the basics.
Here in Part 1, we learn how chronic stress can lead to an increase our Alzheimer’s risk. In Part 2, Dr. Khalsa teaches us how spiritual fitness through meditation – specifically a particular type of meditation – can help us stay cognitively healthy.
CBB: Dr. Khalsa, how much of an effect do you feel that stress has on our risk of developing dementia?
Dr. Khalsa: I feel that stress may have a large and under-appreciated effect on cognitive decline and may be a high risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Remember, however, that dementia is not just Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is the greatest cause of dementia. Dementia can also be caused by multiple small strokes, for example, and stress, because it raises blood pressure and leads to heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, can lead to stokes, which cause dementia.
But chronic untreated stress by itself can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia because of the so-called cortisol connection. Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands, which sit atop of your kidneys, and are stimulated by the pituitary gland to release cortisol in the bloodstream in response to stress. Cortisol then goes to the brain and leads to a toxic level of cortisol to bathe the brain, thus killing brain cells, leading to hippocampus atrophy and decrease of cognitive function.
Stress also affects mood, sleep, blood pressure, smoking, lack of exercise, and other negative health habits, which are also risk factors for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
CBB: Is the problem the stress itself or more in how we handle it?
Dr. Khalsa: The problem is actually both. It is stress, because stress does raise cortisol as mentioned, and has a number of far-reaching effects. Moreover, it’s not just the single stress event, but it is the number of stressful events that a person endures throughout their entire life, starting with adverse childhood experiences and early life stress. This, in and of itself, has been shown to decrease cognitive function and lead to depression, as well as memory loss.
In addition, women who have multiple stressful life events in middle age and beyond, are more prone to develop Alzheimer’s disease as are those with a stress-prone personality or those individuals who suffer from stress at work. Typically these are people with high strain and low control. They’re under pressure but are not in a position to change the work load.
As far as handling it, meditation, for example, has been shown to lower cortisol and improve medical outcomes while it enhances brain function, reverses memory loss and has many other salubrious effects.
See Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Khalsa to learn more.