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Meditation prevents Alzheimer’s? Claims from a foundation news release get ahead of the evidence

Alzheimer's Disease Prevention: New Journal Article Highlights Benefits of Meditation and Spiritual Fitness

Our Review Summary

Meditating in beautiful surroundingsThis news release — and the review article on which it’s based — from the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation claims that practicing a type of singing meditation called Kirtan Kriya for 12 minutes a day reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and improves the memory of people with mild cognitive impairment. One of the precepts of holistic medicine organizations such as the Foundation is that spirituality and emotions play as big a part in a person’s health as their physical symptoms. While it’s generally accepted that meditation can reduce stress levels in some people, which may in turn lead to better general health and well-being, this news release goes too far in claiming that Kirtan Kriya can improve memory and is a “key component” in reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. It would take a randomized controlled trial that followed people with no memory impairment or with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to see if those practicing meditation developed Alzheimer’s less frequently than those who did not. Such a trial has not been done. The major risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are age, family history and heredity. The evidence that meditation can reduce these risk factors remains inconclusive.

 

Why This Matters

Any news of a simple way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease is likely to generate interest and hope. About 5 million Americans and 44 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s and related dementia. The numbers are expected to rise with an aging population. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the cost of caring for Alzheimer’s patients will be about $226 billion in the U.S. in 2015, and $605 billion globally.

 

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation states that the yoga technique is “affordable” in the news release. That’s a step toward satisfying this criterion, but it’s not clear whether the Foundation’s definition of “affordable” is the same as readers’ definition. Some numbers would have helped here. The Foundation’s website provides instructions online on how to practice Kirtan Kriya yoga in six steps, and provides a link on how to order an accompanying CD for $20. Including a brief reference to that info in the release would have earned it a Satisfactory rating.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The news release claims that the 12-minute meditation has been successfully used to “improve memory” in people with subjective cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment. There’s no quantification offered.  What was the health status before and after performing the meditation exercises?

The headline is particularly concerning, suggesting that a research journal article finds meditation and spiritual fitness beneficial in preventing Alzheimer’s. But the news release mainly focuses on vague claims and a description of the technique without explaining “how” the technique benefits the brain other than activation of a certain area.

When we looked at the review article that the release is based on, we found that the few actual studies cited on meditation were very small. There was no mention of randomization, and again no design where development of dementia was compared between those practicing meditation and not. The studies themselves mentioned they were “pilot” or “preliminary.”

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Harms are not addressed in the release but meditation is not associated with any common health risks. We’ll rule this Not Applicable.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The quality of evidence is not established. How many people were included in the studies? What were their ages? How was progress measured? What kind of studies were they?

The news release states that Kirtan Kriya is an “evidence-based practice” but doesn’t provide any evidence. It states that SPECT scans showed the technique “activates the posterior cinglate gyrus, an important region of the brain that helps regulate memory and emotional function” and claims other benefits including “a diminished loss of brain volume with age, significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms, and greater improvement of mental health, well-being and memory.”

These findings, while interesting, were in very small studies with significant limitations — none of which were even hinted at in the release. It’s a jump to suggest that these results mean that meditation will decrease risk of Alzheimer’s

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

Disease-mongering was not among the problems with this news release.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

It’s clear that the release came from the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, and that the study author is also the Foundation’s president and medical director, Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD. The release states that the Foundation supports holistic and lifestyle approaches to dementia prevention, which distinguishes it from the vast majority of prevention/treatment efforts that are based on drugs.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The news release focuses on only one technique — the Kriya Kirtan. However, the news release could have provided more context, as given in the article, on the importance of other lifestyle factors including diet, physical activity, cognitive training, and social engagement. The combination of these lifestyle factors actually does have some randomized controlled trial evidence supporting it now, with recent publication of the FINGER study.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The release establishes that the Kirtan Kriya meditation technique is currently in use. Instructions can be found on the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation’s website.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

We’ll give the benefit of the doubt here. Quoting the study author, the release states, “We’ve been studying the impact of meditation on memory for more than 20 years, and are as encouraged as we’ve ever been on its powerful role in maximizing brain health.” So the release is not claiming any breakthrough advance, and appropriately suggests that the study is summarizing a body of existing research. The release could have noted that meditation has been around for thousands of years, and that its popularity has spread globally in recent decades. The other aspect worth commenting on is that traditional medicine and research is overwhelmingly focusing on a search for drug interventions — so lifestyle approaches in general are novel.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

In order to accept several of the release’s claims such as “Kirtan Kriya is a safe, affordable, fast, and effective way to keep the brain spiritually fit” you have to be open-minded to the precepts of holistic medicine — that optimal health can be achieved by giving balanced attention to a person’s body, mind, spirit, and emotions. We are open-minded to exploring claims and research by all, as long as it’s backed up by good evidence. This wasn’t.

Total Score: 4 of 9 Satisfactory

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