Hedging Against AlzheimersIn January of 2009 both my parents were diagnosed with “dementia of the Alzheimer’s kind” on the same day. I was expecting such a diagnosis for my mother, who was suffering from short-term memory loss (and who had a history of Alzheimer’s in the family). But the diagnosis for my father? My siblings and I were stunned. At 84 he had slowed down, for sure, but we had attributed his sudden disinterest in yard work and taking care of his finances to an infection that he was fighting.

In the following months, as my father’s mental condition declined precipitously, my sister and I scrambled to rearrange our lives to give our parents the care that they needed. And as we talked endlessly about what had caused this, we found out that there was also Alzheimer’s in my father’s family—his mother had been diagnosed with what they termed then as “hardening of the arteries”—with symptoms that today would likely be classified as dementia of the Alzheimer’s kind.

Needless to say, with a history of Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family tree, prevention is on my mind. So I was interested to see a new research study that, to me, points toward stress relief as a way to hedge our bets against this debilitating disease.

The landmark study on Alzheimer’s, conducted at Harvard Medical School and published in Nature, pinpoints a protective protein in the prefrontal cortex (called, interestingly enough, REST) that switches on in the aging pre-frontal cortex in healthy people—but fails to switch on in those with Alzheimer’s. This, the researchers believe, could explain why some people with the amyloid plaques and brain tangles associated with the Alzheimer’s brain have no symptoms of dementia. Researchers have long suspected that another factor was involved, and these researchers think it’s the REST protein that provides the missing link.

Here’s what caught my eye: The protective REST protein is switched on as part of the brain’s stress response.

“Our work raises the possibility that the abnormal protein aggregates associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may not be sufficient to cause dementia; you may also need a failure of the brain’s stress response system,” said Bruce Yankner, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and leader of the study, in an article by Shelley Emling in the Huffington Post.

So in other words, the onset of Alzheimer’s could be related to a failed stress response, which is often caused by chronic stress.

This makes sense to me.

Researchers already know that when a person is under stress, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, planning and coordinating functions, becomes less able to engage with the demands of the environment. It’s as if it goes “offline.” Loss of memory, impaired cognitive functioning, inability to make decisions, ADHD and a host of other mental deficits are symptoms.

One of the best ways to protect the pre-frontal cortex from stress, research is finding, is the daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique. Practicing TM not only reduces day-to-day stress, it breaks the cycle of chronic stress and fatigue. And while stress takes the pre-frontal cortex offline, TM has an enlivening effect, switching it on, in effect.

“The Transcendental Meditation has the exact opposite effect on the pre-frontal cortex as stress,” says Dr. Fred Travis, a researcher who has published more than 100 studies in peer-reviewed journals on stress and the brain. “Neuroimaging studies show increased activity in the frontal area of the brain during Transcendental Meditation practice, as compared to just sitting in eyes-closed rest. In addition to increased activity in the frontal areas, we also see increased activity in the back of the brain—the parietal areas. These two parts of the brain are part of the attentional circuit.”

The aging brain, especially, can benefit from the protective benefits of TM on the pre-frontal cortex. Even in healthy, younger people, chronic stress can affect memory, cognition and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. At any age, when we are restricted by stress, fatigue, and other negative factors, then the brain is less adaptable, and we become handicapped in how we process and respond to our world.

I’m suspecting that my daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique can help protect my brain from the dementia and Alzheimer’s that has plagued my family for generations. I’m basing my lifestyle on other research as well. Aerobic exercise is found to build brain cells. Inflammation may be the cause of Alzheimer’s, some researchers say, so eating lots of antioxidants can help. Exercising your brain with plenty of mental stimulation is important. Having a wide social network may be a protective factor, say other studies. Getting enough sleep is another protective factor, a recent study at Temple University recently found.

It all comes down to a balanced lifestyle, and I’m aiming for chronic health rather than chronic disease—for now and into the future.

And while it will take years for researchers to follow up on these studies and others to find the true cause of dementia, who knows? Perhaps by keeping my stress response nimble and strengthening my pre-frontal cortex through TM, getting a good night’s sleep and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, my brain will switch on the REST protein to protect it from the disease that is affecting so many American families, including my own.

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, April 30, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)


Slow the Aging Process - Alarik Arenander, Ph.D., is Director of the Brain Research InstituteAlarik Arenander, Ph.D., is Director of the Brain Research Institute and an expert in the neurobiology of brain development and mind-body health. He has conducted pioneering research at the University of California at Los Angeles, Penn State University at Hershey, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Maharishi University of Management in Iowa. Here Enlightenment asks him to share his knowledge about brain physiology and how to keep our brains healthy as we age.

Enlightenment: Is there a relationship between stress and aging?

Dr. Alarik Arenander: Yes. Stress is a major source of disorder in brain functioning. In particular, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is very sensitive to stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and substance abuse—all of which severely reduce its ability to function properly. Stress and fatigue cause the prefrontal cortex to go “offline.”

This is important because the prefrontal cortex is considered the “CEO” of the brain. It regulates judgment, planning, problem solving, decision making, moral reasoning, and sense of self—really important functions! And guess what? Research reveals that this key orchestrator of brain function increasingly goes offline with age, especially in people with Alzheimer’s.

So, yes, stress is a factor in aging and definitely impacts in a negative way the brain’s main control unit, the prefrontal cortex. And as we know, the Transcendental Meditation technique has been shown to reduce stress better than any other stress-reduction technique available, in part by creating remarkably high levels of brain coherence in this region and across the whole brain.

Enlightenment: How would you define aging, and when does it start?

Dr. Alarik Arenander: Aging is a progressive disconnect or loss of order within the body and mind. What people don’t realize is that the key markers for aging start as early as the third decade of life. By the time a person in their 60s or 70s approaches their doctor to discuss a concern about memory and thinking, the underlying aging process may have already been going on for 40 or 50 years.

So aging is a process that starts even in 20- or 30-year-olds, that accumulates with time, and morphs into disorders of the body, mind, and behavior.

Enlightenment: Are there known causes of dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Dr. Arenander: Age is the biggest risk factor or determinant for dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common type of dementia. By the time a person reaches 80 years of age, they have a 50 percent chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This is not a good outlook.

Risk factors for Alzheimer’s

Other risk factors include genetics, the quality of education, their work environment, diet, chronic disease, environmental toxins, and substance abuse. And let’s not forget how many times you’ve hit your head. Brain trauma is an important cause of Alzheimer’s later in life. That’s why it is so important to wear a helmet when you ride your bicycle. You only get one brain, and all these risk factors add up to build a case for or against whether you get dementia or Alzheimer’s.

One important note here is that with the exception of age, most known risk factors are things we actually have control over. In fact, it’s possible to be 80, 90, or even 100 years of age, and to function as well as a college student. Research suggests that the brains of these highly functional elderly people are more orderly than less functional elderly individuals. The famous Alzheimer’s study of nuns documented that those with more complex cognitive functioning, or orderliness, early in their life had a better quality of life later on.

As we age, we need to create more order in the brain. Order refers to the intelligent flow of information. You could think of disorder as “noise” in the brain, and order as the “signal” in the brain. So, when the ratio of signal-to-noise decreases as a part of the aging process, thinking can become confused and memory fails. So we want to strengthen the signal, the order, while doing what we can to reduce the noise or disorder.

Most risk factors introduce disorder into the physiology, and this is something we can try to prevent or reduce. Unfortunately, very few people introduce order into their lives in an effective way. Most people’s diet and lifestyle, for example, do not add order. In fact, they actually decrease order.

With more order in the brain system, the impact of risk factors for aging and Alzheimer’s are greatly reduced. If you have a way to instill more order in your brain, you can hold off, prevent, or even fix cognitive loss, which correlates with loss of brain functioning. That’s where the practice of the TM®technique becomes very helpful.

Enlightenment: What does science tell us are the main ways to create and maintain orderliness in the brain as we approach our 50s and 60s? Is there any research on this?

Dr. Arenander: Most research focuses on introducing various forms of orderliness into the brain physiology and the body. For example, easily walking a few miles each day can have a positive effect on brain function in aging individuals. Also, exercising our mental functions such as memory and sensory and motor activities can lead to improved performance in these specific areas. Software is available that has some good effects. Challenging cognitive activity can be helpful as well—taking on new projects, taking classes, doing crossword puzzles, learning a new language, etc.

Since aging is associated with increased inflammation, foods that offer anti-inflammatory phytonutrients are an important part of an anti-aging diet. These foods include most fruits and vegetables of color. Who doesn’t like blueberries or strawberries? Most blue, purple, and red foods yield significant antioxidant activity, besides tasting good. Of course, one needs to buy them organically. Otherwise, these same foods can carry high loads of toxic agricultural chemicals.

You can also exercise your emotions by staying socially active. Higher levels of social engagement appear to have some protective effect.

Research on the TM program show decreased biological aging and extended length of life

But science would argue that the most important category is rest—that is, some means of naturally bringing about greater degrees of orderliness. With age, sleep can become shortened and fragmented. Most individuals are sleep deprived from an early age and never allow the brain to benefit from the nourishing value of a full night’s sleep. Adequate nighttime sleep is important.

Research supports the idea that even sleep is not enough. We need to experience a more concentrated and enlivening form of rest. That’s why I recommend that individuals who wish to optimize the aging process begin to meditate. Decades of research on the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique indicate that every risk factor, perhaps even the main risk factor of age itself, can be positively influenced by the practice of this simple, enjoyable meditation.

For example, the twice-daily routine of meditation can significantly lower one’s biological age. You could be 60 years old but play tennis like a 45-year-old. Research also shows that individuals who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique live longer on average and have less chronic illness—that is, they experience a longer and better quality of life than individuals who do not practice the technique.

Enlightenment: How can Transcendental Meditation practice accomplish all these benefits for the aging process?

Dr. Arenander: A key finding of brain research is that with age, the orderliness of brain functioning is progressively lost. Brain orderliness, as measured by coherence of the electrical waves in the brain, is a powerful indicator of how orderly the brain’s 100 billion cells are. When different parts of the brain start to function in better alignment, or in phase with each other, it is possible to quantify the level of integration in rhythmic, orderly wave patterns. This is called brainwave coherence, and it correlates strongly with improved mental functioning and improved aging.

Dr. Alarik Arenander Alarik Arenander Brain Research Institute Expert in the Neurobiology of brain development and mind-body health

A number of good studies have shown that meditation, specifically the TM practice, can create remarkable levels of brain wave coherence. My own research shows that brainwave coherence increases quickly when one learns this simple technique—and continues to develop in the brain even during dynamic activity. This finding is important for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, research shows that with a tool like the TM technique, we don’t have to lead a life of mental deterioration. The brain has flexibility and growth opportunities at any age. Just because we are getting older doesn’t mean we have to move in the direction of senility or dementia; the research clearly indicates that there are ways to generate more orderly functioning in the brain.

More importantly, the increase in brainwave coherence duringTM practice extends into waking activity—that is, after meditation—indicating that this form of meditation leads to profound, enduring changes in brain orderliness with regular practice. These changes support a long and healthy life.

These findings of increased brainwave coherence are consistent with hundreds of studies showing that orderliness increases in the mind, body, emotions, and behavior as a result of Transcendental Meditation practice.

For example, research on the TM program shows a reduction in most chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and its risk factors, such as hypertension, elevated cholesterol levels, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and substance abuse. Studies also indicate that decreased biological aging and extended length of life result from the regular practice of the TM technique.

Finally, the research shows a reduction of risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia. These findings are all symptoms of increased orderliness in mind and body.

Seven ways to increase orderliness in brain functioning

  1. The most important category is rest. Getting a good night’s sleep is important.
  2. You can also benefit from a more concentrated and orderly form of rest. As a researcher and neuroscientist, I can say that the TM program is far and away the most effective and well-researched program for accomplishing this.
  3. Walking easily a few miles a day can have a positive effect on your brain functioning.
  4. Exercising your mind, such as memory and sensory and motor activities, can lead to improved performance in these areas.
  5. Exercise your emotions by staying socially active. Higher levels of social engagement appear to have some protective effect.
  6. Challenging cognitive activity can be helpful—take on new projects or classes, do crossword puzzles, learn a new language, etc.
  7. Take advantage of foods that offer anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. An anti-aging diet can include most fruits and vegetables of color.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment MagazineIssue number 9. Reprinted with permission.)