By Dr Natalie Marchant, Division of Psychiatry, UCL.
(posted 01 June 2021)
As people live longer, cases of dementia are estimated to triple by 2050, creating one of the greatest healthcare challenges of the 21st century. It is more important than ever that as we get older, we safeguard not only our physical health but our mental health too. Dementia, for example, can create immense emotional and practical challenges for individuals and their families, but there’s also a knock-on effect to society as a whole given the associated emotional, health and social care costs.
Sadly, effective treatments for the underlying illnesses that cause dementia are lacking, making it all the more important to find ways to prevent them.
Over the past 4 years, I have led an EU-funded clinical trial examining whether certain behavioural interventions, like mindfulness or health self-management (learning about healthy lifestyles and planning and achieving personal goals), can help reduce anxiety and improve the mental health of memory clinic patients. These are people who are experiencing problems with their memory that can’t be verified by testing – a condition known as subjective cognitive decline (SCD).
We recruited 147 volunteers from memory clinics in the UK, France, Germany and Spain and randomly assigned them to either an eight-week mindfulness course or an eight-week health self-management course. All were tested before the course, just after and once again six months later. Although we expected meditation to have more of an impact on mental health, the results released today – show that in both groups, anxiety levels dropped after the course and the effects could still be seen six months later. There was no difference between the two interventions in anxiety symptom reduction.
These results are exciting as they show that taking a short course in mindfulness or health self-management can lead to small but significant reductions in anxiety levels which, in turn could help prevent further cognitive decline and the onset of dementia. These findings must, however, be interpreted with caution because our study did not include a passive control condition (where participants do not take part in any intervention) which would help us to understand whether the reductions in anxiety were specifically due to the lifestyle changes promoted by the interventions.
Even allowing for the fact that people with anxiety tend to benefit from the social interaction that taking part in a group provides, these results are encouraging and will help inform strategies aimed at improving mental health in older adults.