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Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. Headshot

An Easy Meditation Practice to Reverse Memory Loss

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By the time you finish reading the above headline, you or someone you love could have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Yes, you read correctly! Recent research reveals that every 69 seconds someone in America develops this memory-robbing, life-destroying, incurable illness.

That's why Alzheimer's is the number-one worry of aging baby boomers.

Yet, there is some good news. It's also a medical fact that if we can delay the onset of memory loss by five years, we can reduce an individual's chance of developing Alzheimer's by 50 percent. Moreover, if you can keep your memory strong and vital 10 years longer than expected, you can forget about ever getting Alzheimer's.

While researchers continue to search for that ever-elusive, magic-bullet drug, they could be missing the boat. Why? The answer to the prevention and reversal of memory loss could lie in a 5,000-year-old technique that has recently been revealed to actually reverse memory loss in only 12 minutes a day.

And when you discover the whole story, it makes perfect sense.

Is Stress Killing Your Brain?

A number of years ago, I discovered a conversation that was being held among high level academic neuroscientists. This cutting-edge research showed that stress, through the release in the body of a hormone called cortisol, could kill brain cells by the millions and lead to memory loss similar to Alzheimer's disease. For me, this was an epiphany. I remember thinking that, if stress could cause memory loss, then why couldn't anti-stress techniques, such as meditation, stop it from happening?

I recalled that in 1949, Dr. Walter Hess, a Swiss-born physiologist, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for proving that there were actually two discrete centers in the brain: a stress center and an anti-stress, or relaxation, center. When the stress center in your brain is activated, a stress response is elicited with its all-too-familiar features such as a pounding heart, faster breathing and high blood pressure. And, as I mentioned, prolonged exposure to stress can kill brain cells, too. When you touch that relaxation spot, however, the exact opposite response ensues: your blood pressure goes down, your pulse slows and your breathing rate returns to normal.

One of the best scientifically proven ways to elicit this anti-stress response is through the regular practice of meditation, which lowers that dangerous stress hormone. There are various forms of meditation, all of them worthwhile and effective at reducing stress and improving many aspects of physical and mental health and well-being.

A well-known form is Transcendental Meditation, or TM, initially brought to the West by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and popularized by The Beatles in the late 1960s. There have been many studies revealing the positive benefits of TM. It takes extensive training, however, involves getting a secret mantra and can be expensive. It is prescribed to practice TM 20 minutes twice a day.

Mindfulness Meditation, a Buddhist-based breathing practice, has also been studied extensively and found to be very healthful. For example, studies on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) by John Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. and others, have shown its usefulness in soothing chronic pain, reducing anxiety and helping to heal from an illness. Mindfulness also requires extensive training, often in a retreat or seminar setting, may also prove costly, and usually requires you to "sit" for at least 30 minutes at a time -- perhaps making it impractical for the average aging baby boomer with no meditation experience.

For the past decade or so, the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF), of which I'm president, has been researching a simple, 12-minute meditation technique called Kirtan Kriya (KK). KK comes from the Kundalini Yoga tradition as taught by Yogi Bhajan. KK is easy to learn, involves singing a mantra in a simple manner for 12 minutes and requires no seminar or retreat experience.

Of the three meditations I have discussed, it is the only technique that can be learned from a CD; you can just sing along with it.

Research-Proven Effectiveness

KK has been shown in research published in prestigious medical journals to make you smarter, healthier and happier when practiced for 12 minutes a day. If I might wax a bit scientific with you for a moment, please allow me to share some of that work.

  1. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine Communication showed that subjects were able to activate a very important part of their brain, called the posterior cingulate gyrus, or PCG. This is important because the PCG is the first area of the brain to diminish in activity when a person gets Alzheimer's disease. If you activate it daily with KK, perhaps you won't lose mental function as you age.
  2. A pilot study published in the prestigious Journal of Alzheimer's Disease in 2010 revealed that 15 subjects with established memory loss, with no meditation experience, were able to reverse it by doing KK 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. This is the only study of which I'm aware to involve meditation in people with actual memory loss.
  3. And in our most recent study, stressed caregivers of dementia patients, a group of people well known to be at risk for memory loss, depression, and ill health themselves, were able to improve their memory, reduce inflammation, soothe their stress and increase their telomerase, a marker of health and longevity.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the answers we're looking for when it comes to ending memory loss could be gained by simply doing KK for 12 minutes each morning? Perhaps that magic bullet is already here, waiting to be discovered in each and every one of us after all. Now, wouldn't that be grand?

Further references:

Moss AS, Wintering N, Roggencamp H, Khalsa DS, et al, Effects of an eight week meditation program on mood and anxiety in patients with memory loss. Alt and Compl Medicine 2011. Pub date TBD.