When we talk about cognitive decline or memory loss, the first thing to focus on is stress. The adrenal glands in the body release a chemical called cortisol when we need to exert ourselves. It helps us get up in the morning, for instance, and allows us to cope with difficult situations.
Unfortunately, many of us experience an excess of day-to-day stress, and the resulting near-constant cortisol release can damage the memory center of the brain. In cases of moderate-to-high chronic stress, we lose our ability to concentrate, and recalling memories or laying down new ones becomes more difficult. To make matters worse, the receptors in the brain become less adept at regulating cortisol as we age.
The flip side is that the simple and ancient practice of meditation has been shown to lower cortisol and improve many areas of mental function, including memory and IQ. The brain-longevity program for Alzheimer's uses different types of breath and attention to posture to increase cognitive functioning. Mudras, or hand gestures, have been shown on MRIs to "light up" certain areas of the brain, while mouthing specific sounds, or mantras, accesses the meridians in the mouth connected to the pituitary and hypothalamus glands. Taken together, these techniques slow the progression of Alzheimer's and can sometimes even stop it in its earlier stages. In later stages, meditative activities can help improve the activities of daily living.
You don't need to know the specifics of this technique, however, to start your own home program of cognitive loss prevention. All you need is a quiet spot where you can get comfortable and concentrate on a point of focus (a mantra or the breath). Practice every day, preferably in the morning, when all the hormones, including cortisol, tend to rise. And always approach your practice with a loving attitude that will enable you to return to the present.
Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., is founder of the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Arizona (www.Brain-Longevity.com). His latest book, Meditation Is Medicine, was published by Pocket Books in 2001.