New review of evidence by Silver Santé researchers finds Mindfulness-based Programmes may improve cognition in older adults
By Tim Whitfield, Division of Psychiatry, UCL
(Posted 27th September 2021)
The number of new mindfulness studies being published each year continues to increase. Whilst this offers advantages (e.g. enabling comparisons between studies), it can obscure the bigger picture. This has inspired ‘systematic reviews’ (summaries of all the papers on a topic) and ‘meta-analyses’ (calculations combining results across studies). Silver Santé researchers recently completed a systematic review and meta-analysis to answer the question: ‘Does taking part in a Mindfulness-based Programme boost people’s cognitive abilities?’ .
Mindfulness has become a buzzword, with an increasing proportion of the public becoming aware that mindfulness can benefit their mental health. However, researchers have also been investigating whether mindfulness can improve cognitive abilities, for example memory, concentration and planning. Our review ‘zoomed out’ to look at what studies on this question have found out. We focused on a course taught in groups, known as a Mindfulness-based Programme (MBP). MBPs are typically aimed at relative newcomers to mindfulness, are taught by a facilitator over approximately eight weeks, and involve learning practical techniques and theory.
The meta-analysis part of our paper (the part combining data to look at the overall effects) included 45 studies, involving a total of 2,238 participants! Our main result showed that taking part in an MBP resulted in a small boost to cognitive abilities overall. Evaluating different types of cognitive ability separately revealed that there was a specific effect for ‘executive functions’. In plain English, these abilities enable us to manage ourselves and our resources in order to achieve goals.
Next, we divided studies into two groups based on the age of participants. For the younger age group (under 60 years), there was no effect of MBPs overall, whereas for the older group (over 60 years), the effect was stronger than it had been in the original analysis. This finding is exciting, because we all slow down cognitively as we age, while others experience serious brain diseases resulting in dementia. The finding that MBPs might help mental abilities in older adults was thus particularly encouraging.
Whilst this project advances our understanding of the benefits of mindfulness, it’s worth mentioning some limitations. Firstly, whilst we included 45 studies overall, this number was smaller when looking at specific groups and mental abilities. Secondly, when we compared MBPs to other types of group-based programme, we did not find a difference. This hints that taking part in a group programme might be beneficial, rather than mindfulness specifically. Lastly, it was difficult to assess the quality of some of the included studies.
Despite the limitations, this project represents the most comprehensive review on this question to date, and will steer this field of research going forward. We already know that mindfulness benefits wellbeing, and now researchers are unpacking the positive effects on cognitive abilities, too.
 T. Whitfield, T. Barnhofer, R. Acabchuk, A. Cohen, M. Lee, M. Schlosser, E. M. Arenaza‑Urquijo, A. Böttcher, W. Britton, N. Coll‑Padros, F. Collette, G. Chételat, S. Dautricourt, H. Demnitz‑King, T. Dumais, O. Klimecki, D. Meiberth, I. Moulinet, T. Müller, E. Parsons, L. Sager, L. Sannemann, J. Scharf, A.‑K. Schild, E. Touron, M. Wirth, Z. Walker, E. Moitra, A. Lutz, S. W. Lazar, D. Vago, N. L. Marchant. The Effect of Mindfulness‑based Programs on Cognitive Function in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta‑analysis. Neuropsychology Review. 2021 Aug 4. doi: 10.1007/s11065-021-09519-y.