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A first taste of mindfulness meditation

Despite its popularity, most people – myself included – know very little about mindfulness in its various forms. While I’ve followed a few short mindfulness sessions on an app at home, I confess that I couldn’t tell you the difference between mindfulness and meditation or about the different types. So when I had the opportunity to try out some meditation techniques as part of my work managing communications for the Silver Santé Study, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more.

The project’s coordinating team arranged for all the project’s partners to take part in a morning-long session trying out a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques as part of the project’s annual meeting in Liége, Belgium, late last year. Leading the session, for 22 participants, was experienced meditation instructor and author, Martine Batchelor, who has been teaching meditation for many years and has led sessions with the volunteers taking part in the Study’s clinical trials.

At the start of the session, our first job was to sit comfortably, upright in the chair or on the floor – whichever was more comfortable – and to make sure our feet were connected to the ground. We were then asked to close our eyes and to concentrate on our breathing – breathing in….breathing out… allowing ourselves to breath naturally but taking notice of the rhythm of our breathing and how it made the different parts of our bodies move as we inhaled and exhaled.  As I listened to Martine’s gentle voice and focused intently on the rhythm of my own breathing, I could feel myself becoming more and more deeply relaxed. At one point, I actually fell asleep for a few seconds.

Breathing, and being mindful of each breath, appeared to be at the core of all the meditation techniques that followed in our session.

Next we tried out body scan meditation, which involved concentrating on one part of the body at a time and working our way from head to toe – each time being encouraged to notice any sensations, whether it was being aware of a foot touching the ground or how our clothes brushed against our skin. If our thoughts wandered, we were encouraged to gently bring them back to the present moment, to experience the here and now, being aware of any background sounds in the room.

We moved on to another technique – standing meditation – in which we stood behind our chairs with legs slightly apart and hands either by our sides or comfortably resting on the backs of the chairs. Personally, I found it harder to meditate while standing, but perhaps with more practice it becomes easier.

The next meditation type experienced was gratitude and appreciation meditation which focuses on contemplating the things for which we feel grateful – for example, our good health, loved ones or nature. In our session we were encouraged to think about our own bodies and to tell ourselves that we appreciate certain features we’re happy with. I wasn’t the only person to struggle a little with this concept but perhaps that’s a sign that we need it more than others!

Lastly, we tried compassion or loving kindness meditation, which is said to help you become more compassionate towards yourself and others.  We were asked to think about ourselves, someone we care about, someone we feel neutral about, and someone we have a little difficulty with and to recite silently, inwardly, a series of phrases. Thinking of each person in turn we said:

“May you have happiness, may you be free from suffering, may you experience joy and ease.”

The repeating phrases element of this technique came less naturally to me than the more basic breathing and body scan techniques. Perhaps, in time, I would grow more accustomed to it, but this was a completely new experience and a technique I certainly didn’t take to immediately.

By the end of the session, I felt both relaxed and invigorated and came away with a very positive view of meditation and with a few useful techniques, such as breathing and body scan meditation, which I will definitely put to good use at home to help with relaxation and to de-stress.

It is hoped that the results of the Silver Santé Study, the first of which are expected in 2019, will contribute to important discussions about how the general population can maintain a good quality of life and help decision-makers devise policies that will help reduce the cost of care for age-related illnesses.  But, perhaps most importantly, the project team hopes the results will enable its team of experts to develop specific tools and techniques that we can all use to help safeguard our mental health in later life, allowing us to be healthier and happier throughout our lives.

 

Brain health across the lifespan programme published

Are you interested in hearing from some of Europe’s leading brain health experts on mental health and well-being?

Then take a look at the programme for our “Promoting brain health across the lifespan” public conference aimed at healthcare specialists, researchers, patient groups, professional societies and patients with an interest in brain health. Jointly organised by the EU-funded Silver Santé Study and Lifebrain Project as well as the German Brain Council, the event will take place in Berlin on Wednesday 6th November and will cover topics such as promoting healthy brain ageing, styles of thinking and how they affect dementia risk and whether video gaming affects the brain.

Silver Santé Study Project Coordinator and keynote speaker at the conference, Dr Gaël Chételat, said: “As an EU-funded project, we are delighted to have this opportunity to share our work directly with individuals and organisations with an interest in brain health and we would urge anyone with an interest in this field to attend.

“Several of our senior Silver Santé researchers will be speaking at the conference, alongside experts from Lifebrain and the German Brain Council and other invited speakers, and we look forward to contributing to interesting discussions about mental health and well-being on the day.”

Experts from the Silver Santé Study, Lifebrain and the German Brain Council will discuss the latest experimental approaches and evidence from these two major European research consortia regarding the impact of socioeconomic factors, physical activity, nutrition, and mental training on cognitive function, mental health, and well-being throughout life.

These results will also be explored in light of prevention and intervention strategies for brain disorders. The conference will gather European speakers from different research areas including psychology, neurology, neuroimaging, psychiatry, genetics, epidemiology, molecular biology, and medicine. Click here to download the full conference programme.

Anyone wishing to attend the conference must register via our Eventbrite page before 1st October 2019. A maximum of 180 places are available on a first come, first served basis.

 

Follow-up tests added to Age-Well trial

Following the completion of the first wave of Silver Santé Study’s Age-Well clinical trial, the volunteers have agreed to take part in additional follow-up tests at 21 months. This is to further strengthen validation of the trial by studying whether the effects of mental training techniques persist over time.

Over the last 18 months, the group of 42 older adults aged 65+ has been helping our expert researchers learn more about mental health & well-being in the ageing population. After taking part in a series of baseline tests, each volunteer was randomly assigned to one of three groups – an English language course, a meditation course, or a control group in which participants made no changes to their lifestyle.

Volunteers in Wave 2 will undertake their end of intervention visits in May 2019, and the Wave 3 volunteers have recently finished the nine-month visit.

Blood tests, neuroimaging scans and questionnaires have been used by our expert researchers to assess the impact of the mental training techniques on the brain. The volunteers’ lifestyle habits – such as sleep, diet, physical exercise and emotions – have also been monitored.

The results of the Age-Well trial are expected to be released in 2020.

Caption: Age-Well volunteers taking part in an English learning class at the University of Caen, France.

Scientific papers added to website

A list of the scientific papers published by Silver Santé Study researchers as part of the study has been uploaded to the project website.

The new page – “Project Publications” – lists five scientific papers, three published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research and clinical interventions, one in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy and a fifth which has been accepted for publication in Current Opinion in Psychology. Links to each paper are included.

More papers will be added as they are accepted for publication so check back regularly to see our latest work. Click here to visit the page.

The Silver Santé Study’s expert researchers at the 2019 annual consortium meeting in Liège.

Can healthy lifestyle choices help prevent dementia?

By Dr Eider M Arenaza-Urquijo 

(posted 16th December 2016)

There is now much evidence to support the idea that healthy lifestyle choices may play an important role in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.  Studies show that keeping mentally and physically active may offer protection against developing cognitive decline and dementia.

For almost four years, we have been using advanced neuroimaging techniques in our Caen laboratory in order to understand how lifespan mental and physical activities influence our brain, notably in later life. We have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the volume, structure and neural activity of the brain and positron emission tomography (PET), a technique that allows measuring the metabolic activity of the brain.

Several neuroimaging studies point to the idea that mental and physical activities throughout life are related to preserved brain structure and function in later life. In our laboratory, we have studied the brains of a group of people aged between 60 and 80 years old in relation to the number of years they attended school (as an indicator of mental activity early in life). Participants who spent longer at school had more preserved brain tissues, elevated metabolic function and stronger connections between different brain regions. These regions included the hippocampus and the frontal lobe – both especially vulnerable to ageing and Alzheimer’s disease processes. The stronger connections between these areas sustained better performances in functions such as memory or attention in participants who spent longer at school.

So is it ever too late to adopt healthy lifestyle habits? A recent review that collected and analyzed multiple research studies indicates that even making changes later in life could reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In line with this idea, we recently showed that older adults (60-90 years) who are currently more frequently engaged in mental or physical activities – such as reading or playing games, walking or gardening – had larger hippocampal and frontal regions. Notably, both kinds of activities seem to have a positive effect on these brain structures in a complementary way.

Unfortunately, having a healthy lifestyle does not necessarily prevent you from developing Alzheimer’s disease. The development of dementia is a complex process that involves several factors, such as genetics, lifestyle and environment. Studies, however, suggest that positive lifestyle factors may counteract the harmful deleterious effects of genes. In a recent study we observed that people carrying the highest known genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease but who were highly cognitively engaged, had elevated metabolic function in some brain areas relating to memory performance. Moreover, when Alzheimer’s disease pathology is present in the brain, the brains of individuals with a higher engagement in cognitive and physical activities might be better equipped to compensate for the pathology, meaning that the onset of the symptoms might be delayed.

As part of the Silver Santé Study, we are translating all this promising evidence into a mental training program for adults aged 65 years or older, who will take part in the study for 18 months. This will allow us to observe how their brain structure and function change in response to training. We hope this will provide us with a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying mental activity in later life and how that relates to brain and cognitive health.

 

Sources:

Arenaza-Urquijo et al., Neuroimage, 2013 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23796547

Arenaza-Urquijo, de Flores et al., Brain Imaging and Behavior, 2016 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27757821

Arenaza-Urquijo et al., Neurology, 2015 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26408498

Arenaza-Urquijo et al., Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2015 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26321944

Emotions and their lasting impact on the brain

By Sebastian Baez, Ph.D. Candidate

(posted 27th March 2017)

As medical advances allow people to live longer, it’s becoming increasingly important that we take care of our mental health as well as our physical health in later life. As we get older, our bodies, brains and minds age too, carrying with them some changes that are welcome, but others that are more challenging. Emotional-related changes, for example, are an important component of psychological health and well-being in older adults.

Emotions and their control are central aspects of everyday life. Not only do they influence our daily moods, but the emotional impact of a given experience can motivate behaviours, alter memories, change our sense of morality, and even bias reasoning and decision making. Emotional changes throughout life are indeed necessary for developing new skills. But if not managed properly, they can – in some cases – be linked to negative experiences of psychological distress, anxiety, and even depressive episodes.

I am part of a team at the University of Geneva, working solely on the Silver Santé Study, which is exploring the impact emotions have on the brain, how mental training techniques influence emotional well-being, and what benefits this may bring to us all in later life.

In order to study emotional processes in the human brain, we use neuroimaging methods such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). In this method, the magnetic properties of blood can be used to localise changes in brain activity while participants are lying in an MRI scanner. By asking them to perform certain tasks or to rest, we can measure which brain activation patterns are generated in a given task or in the resting state.

Recent discoveries about the emotional areas of the brain have allowed us to study how emotions are represented there, as well as how they may be controlled, heightened or reduced. There is also a growing interest in understanding how emotions unfold over time and for how long we can measure their effects on the brain and on various cognitive functions such as attention, reasoning, or memory. Previous studies have shown that emotions can have a lasting effect after an emotional episode. Researchers consider that some affective states may be resistant to change once they have been triggered, and that the duration of this carry-over depends on individual coping abilities and personality factors. The critical point is that a stronger and longer impact of emotions on the brain and cognition has been associated with higher levels of anxiety, rumination, and risk for depression.

Moreover, some recent fMRI studies have discovered that short emotional episodes can produce effects on brain activity and brain connectivity that are long-lasting in that they continue during a resting period several minutes after the actual emotional event. Furthermore, recent research on people suffering from depression has shown that by measuring brain activity at rest it is now possible to distinguish between different subtypes of depression.

Our team strongly believes that mental training techniques are a great tool to successfully regulate negative emotional experiences. Mental training might help facing high emotional encounters and even impact on emotional experiences and cognitive changes triggered by emotions, thereby contributing to the well-being of elderly people.

 

Sources:

Kuppens, P., Allen, N. B., & Sheeber, L. B. (2010). Emotional inertia and psychological maladjustment. Psychological Science, 21, 984–991.

Peter Koval, Peter Kuppens, Nicholas B. Allen & Lisa Sheeber (2012): Getting stuck in depression: The roles of rumination and emotional inertia, Cognition & Emotion, 26:8, 1412-1427

Eryilmaz, H., Ville, D. Van De, Schwartz, S., & Vuilleumier, P. (2011). Impact of transient emotions on functional connectivity during subsequent resting state : A wavelet correlation approach. NeuroImage, 54(3), 2481–2491.

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013). Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training. Cerebral Cortex, 23(7), 1552–61.

Wager, T. D. and C.-W. Woo (2017). “Imaging biomarkers and biotypes for depression.” Nat Med 23(1): 16-17.

What is a memory clinic?

By Frank Jessen

(posted 25th September 2017)

Memory clinics are interdisciplinary special services, which offer a detailed work-up of memory problems in people in later life. Usually, patients are referred to memory clinics by their primary care physician, psychiatrist or neurologist and it is at the memory clinic that patients provide a history of their memory problems, which is ideally supported by a spouse or caregiver.

The next step is to perform a cognitive test. These tests are standardized measures of memory, language abilities, attention and other domains, which are used to determine whether a patient has a cognitive capacity within the age-expected age range or below. This is often followed by blood examinations to detect any medical conditions, which may cause memory problems – for example, hypothyroidism. Also, a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is usually obtained to identify brain lesions, such as infarcts or tumors, which can also cause memory disturbances. In some centres, advanced technologies such as positon emission tomography (PET – which show the molecular aspects of the brain), are also provided. Most memory clinics offer examination of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) which can identify Alzheimer’s disease (AD) related changes of protein concentrations, allowing the diagnosis of AD with high certainty.

Memory clinics usually offer a variety of treatment options. These include counselling and non-pharmacological interventions, such as cognitive training or occupational therapy as well as caregiver support groups. Memory clinics also assess the need for pharmacological anti-dementia treatment and sometimes provide the medication directly. Many memory clinics also offer patients the chance to participate in clinical trials with novel pharmacological and non-pharmacological therapies. The focus of these trials is usually very early treatment or prevention of dementia in AD. The Silver Santé Study provides an excellent example of the role memory clinics play in clinical trials. At the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Cologne, where I am director, patients are currently taking part one of the Study’s trials to assess the effect of short-term interventions, such as on behavioural measures. Each patient has some level of subjective cognitive decline, so their improvement can be measured along with the intervention. Behavioural measures will be monitored to see how much of a difference can be made to participants’ well-being due to the intervention.

Memory clinics provide dementia diagnosis and treatment at an expert level and are a key component of up-to-date dementia care. The more refined future dementia treatment becomes, the more central the role of memory clinics for patients and professionals will be.  We hope that the results of the Silver Santé Study can feed into that refinement and help enhance and improve how we all safeguard our mental health and well-being in later life.

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