We are often told that the best way to understand something is to focus, pay attention, and not let your mind wander off into oblivion. Simply put, we are urged to be mindful of ourselves and the situation at hand to solicit an able response. However, if a new study is to be believed, mindfulness doesn’t boost cognitive function, which is the broad system of mental processes related to knowledge, manipulation of information, and reasoning.
The science and other stuff to know
The findings were unearthed following a year-and-a-half-long study conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and the University of California, San Diego. The study’s focus was on older adults and how exercise and mindfulness practices helped improve their cognitive function.
It has been known for a long time that memory, or more specifically episodic memory, and executive function are core aspects of cognitive functioning whose effectiveness declines with age. But scientists wanted to know if lifestyle interventions could have a positive impact on this function.
The clinical trials included 585 participants with a mean age of 71.5 years. All of the patients had no complaints of dementia, but “all had concerns about minor memory problems and other age-related cognitive declines”, a Washington University press release reported.
The subjects were divided into four groups: a group in which “subjects worked with trained exercise instructors; a group supervised by trained experts in the practice of mindfulness; a group that participated in regular exercise and mindfulness training; and a group that did neither, but met for occasional sessions focused on general health education topics”, the press release added.
At the end of six months and again at the end of the study after 18 months, researchers noted no differences between all four groups.
Eric J. Lenze, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University and the study’s first author, said the findings don’t mean exercise or mindfulness training “won’t help improve cognitive function in any older adults, only that those practices don’t appear to boost cognitive performance in healthy people without impairments”.
As humans age, many develop mental inabilities that often lead to painful diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. According to WHO, dementia, which is a syndrome in which there is deterioration in cognitive function beyond what might be expected from the usual consequences of biological aging, is the seventh biggest killer among all diseases.
Studies like the ones conducted at WU and an earlier one conducted at Yale are critical to understanding what might be the root cause of these medical conditions, and what might or might not improve cognitive functioning in elder humans. They could be extremely important in helping healthcare providers offer effective advice to seniors for improving their quality of life and those of others around them.
While there is no doubt that exercise promotes healthy physical functions and mindfulness training has a positive impact on those who practice it, the study simply demonstrated that they do not necessarily improve overall cognitive function in elderly people who do not have dementia or other memory-related issues.
“We aren’t saying, don’t exercise or, don’t practice mindfulness,” Lenze said. “But we had thought we might find a cognitive benefit in these older adults. We didn’t.”
Lenze said they didn’t study if the two therapies could benefit older adults who were impaired by dementia or depression, adding they would continue engaging with the subjects on an even longer timescale to see if continued exercise and mindfulness had long-term benefits. “We’ll continue following the same people for five more years to learn whether exercise and mindfulness training might help slow or prevent future cognitive declines.”