No Cognitive Benefit From Meditation, Learning a Language?

Meditation and foreign language training does not boost cognitive function in cognitively healthy older adults, a new study suggests.

The findings are similar to results from another study published last year but are contrary to previous findings showing cognitive benefits for practicing meditation and learning a new language later in life.

Harriet Demnitz-King

“Based on existing literature, which has provided support for the efficacy of meditation and foreign language training in promoting cognition among older adults, perhaps the most surprising outcome of our study was the lack of evidence indicating cognitive benefits after 18 months of either intervention,” said lead author Harriet Demnitz-King, MSc, a doctoral candidate at University College London, United Kingdom, told Medscape Medical News.  

The findings were published online July 14 in JAMA Network Open.

Contradictory Findings

For the study, 135 French-speaking, cognitively healthy people were randomized to English-language training, meditation, or a control group. All participants were aged 65 years or older, had been retired for at least 1 year and had completed at least 7 years of education.

The meditation and English-language training interventions were both 18 months long and included a 2-hour weekly group session, daily home practice of at least 20 minutes and 1-day intensive 5-hour practice.

Researchers found no significant changes in global cognition, episodic memory, executive function, or attention with either intervention compared with the control group or to each other.

The findings contradict the researchers’ earlier work that found mindfulness meditation boosted cognitive function in older adults with subjective cognitive decline.

Dr Natalie Marchant

“We are still trying to reconcile these findings,” senior author Natalie Marchant, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Psychiatry at University College London, told Medscape Medical News. “It may be that mindfulness meditation may not improve cognition beyond normally functioning levels but may help to preserve cognition in the face of cognitive decline.”

This study was the longest randomized controlled trial in older adults to investigate the effects of non-native language learning on cognition, Marchant said.

“It may be that language-learning may buffer against age-related cognitive decline but does not boost cognition in high-functioning individuals,” Marchant said. “While language learning may not improve cognition, we do not want to discard the other possibility without first examining it.”

Marchant plans to follow participants for years to come to study that very question.

More to Learn

Dr Eric Lenze

The results harken to those of a study covered by Medscape Medical News last year with a similar participant group and similar results. In that work, mindfulness meditation and exercise also failed to boost cognition in healthy adults. But that may not be the whole story, according to Eric Lenze, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.

Lenze was a lead author on that earlier research, known as the MEDEX trial, but was not involved with this study. He commented on the new findings for Medscape Medical News.

“People may read these results, and ours that were published in JAMA in December, as suggesting that lifestyle and cognitive interventions don’t work in older adults, but that’s not what this shows, in my opinion,” Lenze said. “It shows that we don’t understand the science of the aging brain as much as we would like to.”

Participants in most of these studies were mostly White, highly educated, and in good cognitive health, all characteristics that could have skewed these findings, he added.

“It may be that interventions to improve cognitive function in older adults would be more likely to help people who have more room to benefit,” Lenze said. “If you’re already highly educated, healthy, and cognitively normal, why should we expect that you could do even better than that?”

The Age-Well study was funded by European Union in Horizon 2020 program and Inserm, Région Normandie, Fondation d’entreprise MMA des Entrepreneurs du Futur. Marchant reports grants from Alzheimer’s Society and the UK Medical Research Council. Lenze reports funding from Takeda pharmaceuticals and has been a consultant for Pritikin Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online July 14, 2023. Full text

Kelli Whitlock Burton is a reporter for Medscape Medical News covering psychiatry and neurology.

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