Dr Gaël Chételat: Meditate and age better? What science says

- through Fabrice Groult

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Launched in 2016, the European Silver Health Study project studies the factors that can improve the mental health and well-being of seniors. Cognitive exercises and emotion regulation seem to have a promising impact. In Caen, one group alternated mindfulness meditation and compassion for 18 months, while another learned English, and a third group did not change their habits. The Inserm team, led by Dr Gaël Chételat, is currently conducting a battery of medical examinations there to measure the impact of each activity on the quality of life of the elderly.

How did the idea for the Silver Health Study come about?

I have been working for nearly twenty years on aging and the dementias that can be associated with it, in particular Alzheimer's disease. The aim is to follow the increase in life expectancy and its consequences on health. Late-life depression is common, for example. It is linked to the gaze of others and to self-image, to the fact that we are more confronted with the deaths of loved ones, with loneliness. Sleep problems are also increasing exponentially, reaching 50% of over 65s. The same for neurodegenerative diseases. We will probably eventually be able to develop drugs that will stop or slow down these pathological processes, but we are not there yet. That said, some lines of research are already encouraging. In particular those concerning the impact of environmental factors on the development of these diseases. The regulation of emotions is, for its part, less often taken into account. However, we know that stress and anxiety have a negative impact on the quality of life. Interventions to better regulate these emotions, such as meditation, could have a positive impact.

Our study project on learning English among seniors – some of them travel to visit their families elsewhere in the world – finally saw the light of day by responding to a European call for tenders. We work with researchers from several countries (1). At Inserm (National Institute of Health and Medical Research), in Caen, around twenty people are involved. Some are responsible for interventions in English and meditation, others collect data. Others, finally, deal with the recruitment of participants. The latter all live in the Caen region, in order to be able to benefit from an equivalent intervention, over 18 months.

We received 900 applications and 137 people were included in the study. We have a control group who, for 18 months, do not change their habits: one who learns English and another meditation. They were randomly assigned. Therefore, their motivation should not be only to learn English or to meditate. They participate in the study because they believe in it. Some are touched by the aspects related to Alzheimer's disease in their entourage and wished to contribute to the advancement of research...

Several meditation experts are participating in the study. What techniques are taught?

Matthieu Ricard agreed to sponsor our study. A whole panel of meditation experts, such as Martin Batchelor, Titi Dolma, Pascal Delamillieure and Francis Gheysen are involved at different levels: setting up the program and a manual to vary teaching techniques, interventions or advice during data analysis. We are interested in totally secular practices. The European Commission is very keen not to confuse meditation with any religion whatsoever. We rely in particular on developments standardized by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

“Mindfulness-type meditation practices, which involve grounding in the breath, awareness of body movement, and increased presence in the moment, are expected to have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, and depression. »

There are two clinical trials in the project. One of them, taking place in four European countries, involves an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) type intervention, with some modifications made for the specifics of the project and of the population studied. In particular the introduction, at the end of the eight weeks, of a more compassionate component. For the clinical trial taking place in Caen, the intervention lasted eighteen months: nine months of mindfulness and another nine months of compassion. The design of the interventions is equivalent for English and meditation: group work, for two hours, with speakers who are experts in their reciprocal fields. The seniors then have daily exercises of around twenty minutes to do on a tablet, at home. In both areas, they have a day of intensive practice: for English, they will visit the Channel Islands, and for meditation, a day of retreat.

Can training the mind and grounding the body improve everyday life?

It is known that meditation can reduce depressive symptoms and improve sleep problems. Mindfulness-type meditation practices, which involve grounding the breath, becoming aware of body movements, and being more present in the moment, should have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, and depression. Meditation is also expected to impact cognition in general and attentional processes in particular. Cognitive training, here learning English, can also have a positive effect on certain psychoaffective, human and certain social aspects.

Are human interactions essential?

When we interact with one or more people, we “challenge” our brain, by putting it into activity. Social interactions are also helpful in regulating emotions. The bonds that people create with each other, seeing each other once a week for eighteen months and experiencing very strong moments, will encourage them to continue the experience. What is notable is that in most scientific studies, we have an average of 15 to 20% dropout. Here, no one has given up!

How do you measure results?

A number of parameters are measured in the blood, related to general health, aging, the risk of Alzheimer's disease, mood, stress, etc. Many imaging exams as well: the anatomy of the brain, its functioning, its activity during the performance of certain tasks. We also measure certain proteins in the brain or particular mechanisms, in particular with an examination by positron emission tomography. We also assess sleep from every angle, with questionnaires, a bracelet, polysomnography, but also cognitive tests. With all these measures, we will evaluate the impact of the two interventions – in English and in meditation – compared to the passive control group.

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Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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