Physical and mental well-being of older adults: a positive impact of meditation and health education

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Learning mindfulness meditation improves self-compassion, while health education promotes an increase in physical activity. © AdobeStock

A team from Inserm and Université de Caen Normandie, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Jena and University College London (UK), has studied the potential benefits of meditation and health education interventions in people who feel that their memory is in decline. This research was performed as part of the European H2020 Silver Santé Study programme coordinated by Inserm [1] . It shows that learning mindfulness meditation improves self-compassion, while health education promotes an increase in physical activity. These findings, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring , propose new avenues to support healthier ageing.

’Subjective cognitive decline’ is when people feel that their cognitive faculties have deteriorated without this being apparent in standard cognitive tests. Studies have shown that such people have a higher risk of developing actual cognitive decline.

Previous studies had concluded that mindfulness meditation and health education (a practice in which people implement preventive measures and actions that are beneficial for their health) had a positive impact, which was still present six months later, on anxiety in people reporting subjective cognitive decline.

More generally, self-compassion (feeling of kindness toward oneself, having a sense of common humanity, and having an awareness of negative thoughts and feelings without over-identification) and exercise have previously been associated with better mental health, itself associated with improved general health, well-being, and quality of life.

A European research group coordinated by Julie Gonneaud, Inserm researcher at the Physiopathology and Imaging of Neurological Disorders laboratory (Inserm/Université de Caen Normandie), Olga Klimecki, researcher at the University of Jena , and Nathalie Marchant, researcher at University College London (UK), studied the impact of eight weeks of mindfulness meditation and health education courses on self-compassion and physical activity in people reporting subjective cognitive decline.

The trial included 147 patients from memory clinics in France, Spain, Germany and the UK. One group took meditation classes for eight weeks, while the other took health education classes. The impact of the interventions was evaluated using blood tests, cognitive assessments and questionnaires.

The researchers observed that the participants who did the mindfulness meditation training showed an improvement in their self-compassion. The participants who did the health education training showed an increase in their physical activity. These changes were still present six months later.

These findings support complementary effects of mindfulness meditation and participation in health education programmes on certain factors contributing to improved mental well-being and lifestyle in older adults reporting subjective cognitive decline.

The fact that these improvements appear to be sustained after six months of follow-up suggests that these new skills and habits have been incorporated into the participants’ lives.

According to Marchant, who led the trial, ’more and more people are living to an advanced age, and it is crucial that we find ways to support the mental and physical health of older adults.’

’Self-compassion can be of great importance to the elderly. It could improve psychological well-being in order to promote healthy ageing,’ adds Klimecki. ’Our findings are an encouraging first step towards a mindfulness-based intervention that could be used to strengthen self-compassion in older adults. ’

Gonneaud adds: ’Although physical activity has been scientifically associated with better physical, cognitive and mental health, how to promote it in everyday life remains a challenge. Given the particularly harmful effect of a sedentary lifestyle on the health of ageing populations, showing that health education intervention programmes can strengthen commitment to physical activity among the elderly is particularly promising for promoting healthy ageing,’ she concludes.

[1] The Silver Santé study, funded for a five-year period, examines whether mental training techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, health education, or language learning, can help improve the mental health and the well-being of the ageing population.