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Lions Roar : September 2018
either mindfulness meditation, cognitive stimulation therapy, relaxation training, or no treatment, and were given cognitive tests over a two-year period. While patients in the cognitive stimulation and relaxation training groups improved their cognitive scores somewhat in comparison to controls, those doing mindfulness training had much more robust improve- ments in cognitive scores than any other group. While it’s unclear why that would be true, a 2017 study looking at brain function in healthy, older adults suggests meditation may increase attention. In this study, people fifty- five to seventy-five years old were given either eight weeks of focused breathing meditation or an active control. They were then given the Stroop test—a test that measures attention and emotional control—while having their brains monitored by electroencephalography. Those undergoing breath training had significantly better attention on the Stroop test and more activation in an area of the brain associated with attention than those in the active control group. Somewhat surprisingly, however, they fared no better with emotional regulation— something often associated with mindfulness. While this research is preliminary, a recent systematic review of research published in Annals of the New York Acad- emy of Sciences suggests that mindfulness may have some impacts on cognitive decline, perhaps due to its impacts on memory, attention, processing, and executive functioning. MINDFULNESS MAY IMPACT YOUR BODY’S RESPONSE TO INFECTION. When we encounter viruses and other disease-causing organisms, our bodies send out troops of immune cells that circulate in the blood. These cells, including pro- and anti- inflammatory proteins, neutrophils, T-cells, immunoglobulins, natural killer cells, and others, help us fight disease in various ways. Mindfulness, it turns out, may affect these disease- fighting cells. In several studies, mindfulness meditation appeared to increase levels of T-cells or T-cell activity in patients with HIV or breast cancer when compared to controls. This suggests that mindfulness could play a role in fighting cancer and other diseases that call upon immune cells. Indeed, mindfulness appears to help people suffering from cancer with a variety of biomarkers that might suggest progression of the disease. In one 2012 study published in Annals of Family Medicine, elderly participants were randomly assigned an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course or moderate-intensity exercise program. At the end, participants who’d done the mindfulness course had higher levels of IL-8 in their nasal secretions, suggesting improved immune function for those people. fulness research relied on pilot studies with biased samples or measures, more recent studies have used randomly controlled designs and less biased physiological markers to get at the answer. Taken together, the studies suggest that mindfulness may have impacts on our hearts, brains, and immune systems, among other potential effects. Though nothing suggests mindfulness is a stand-alone treatment for disease, nor the most important ingredient for a healthy life, here are some of the ways that it appears to benefit us physically. MINDFULNESS IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEART. One in every four deaths in the United States is from heart dis- ease, which makes it the country’s leading killer. So, whatever decreases the risks or symptoms of heart disease would signifi- cantly impact society’s health. Mindfulness may help with that. In one study published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2013, people with prehypertension were randomly assigned to aug- ment their drug treatment with either a course in mindful- ness meditation or a program that taught progressive muscle relaxation. Those who learned mindfulness had significantly greater reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure than those who learned progressive muscle relaxation. This suggests that mindfulness could help people at risk for heart disease by bringing their blood pressure down. In a 2015 study in PLoS ONE, people with heart disease were randomly assigned either to an online program to help them practice meditation or to a waitlist control while undergoing normal treatment for heart disease. Those who used the mind- fulness program showed significant improvements on the six- minute walking test (a measure of cardiovascular capacity) and slower heart rates than those in the control group. While one meta-analysis of random-controlled studies in Psychosomatic Research showed that mindfulness may have mixed effects on the physical symptoms of heart disease, a 2017 review of the research by the American Heart Association concluded that, while evidence remains preliminary, there is enough to suggest using mindfulness meditation as an adjunct treatment for coronary disease and its prevention. MINDFULNESS MAY DECREASE COGNITIVE DECLINE ASSOCIATED WITH AGING OR ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. People tend to lose some of their cognitive flexibility and short- term memory as they age. Mindfulness may be able to slow cognitive decline, even in people with Alzheimer’s disease. In a longitudinal study published in 2016 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, people with Alzheimer’s disease received LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 60