Brett Arends’s ROI: ‘Saa-taa-naa-maa’ — I’ve taken up chanting to beat dementia

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I have started chanting.

There is no particular reason you should care, except that this isn’t really about me, it’s about you.

Let me explain.

I’ve personally seen the catastrophic, horrific tragedy that Alzheimer’s disease wreaks on the people who get it, their families and their friends. Most of the victims are elderly, though not all. If you’ve had the same experience, you probably have the same feeling I have: Please, Lord, not me.

Medical progress toward any viable Alzheimer’s treatment, let alone a cure, is somewhere between slow and nonexistent. Earlier this year the FDA approved the first new treatment in nearly 20 years. It is not a cure and it is not clear how much it may help treat the symptoms. A second potential treatment, by biotech company Cassava Sciences, is now the source of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Oh, and at the current rate, the federal government has spent more money fighting Covid in the past two years than it will spend on Alzheimer’s research over the next 1,300 years.

Six million Americans have Alzheimer’s today.

So you can understand why I’m not waiting around for medical research to protect me from this horrible disease. As I’m over 50 this isn’t a purely theoretical issue for me either. Which has led me to investigate what, if anything, I can do about it myself.

There are of course obvious things that are good for healthy aging anyway—like eating healthy foods, doing exercise, and avoiding obesity (another, and related, epidemic by the way).

What is interesting, though, is that there is substantial and remarkable evidence that meditation, and in particular a 12-minute daily chant known as Kirtan Kriya meditation, can have an effect. And it can be seen in the physical structure of the brain, as revealed through MRI scans.

Researchers Nicole Last, Emily Tufts and Leslie Auger, at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, published a systematic review of scientific literature in 2017 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Alzheimer’s disease. Regular meditators showed positive physical changes—mainly an increase in gray matter—in multiple areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum, the thalamus and basal ganglia, and the brain stem, they report.

Practicing Kirtan Kriya meditation (and also listening to relaxing music, I should add) for 6 months “have positive effects on a range of healthy and psychosocial outcomes strongly related to cognitive function and predictive of cognitive decline,” and improve various biomarkers—such as telomere length—associated with cognitive decline. Kirtan Kriya meditation produces physical changes in the brain, including greater activity in various areas and increased blood floundefined

Tibetans who practice regular Buddhist meditation have a notably lower rate of dementia than people in other parts of the world, including in China.

Skeptics can always raise caveats. Some studies involve relatively few subjects. In the real world you can’t always control for outside factors. I know a couple of very distinguished medical researchers, and they are always reminding me of how little can actually be proved.

But to dismiss these findings would involve a gross misunderstanding of game theory. There are strong reasons it may work. But there is little to no downside if it doesn’t. And as meditation has been conclusively shown to reduce stress, help sleep, and improve quality of life, it’s essentially a win-win.

I’ve recently taken the 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts (which pioneered the program in the West). It costs $650. (These days it is conducted remotely by Zoom.) Before that, I took an excellent, but shorter, mindfulness course on Udemy at a fraction of the cost. I strongly recommended both.

What is striking though is how much I may be able to achieve simply through 12 minutes of Kirtan Kriya practice every day. This involves repetitive chanting, visualization and certain finger movements.

It only sounds crazy… if you haven’t seen Alzheimer’s up close. I hope you never do.

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