Are you afraid of Alzheimer’s Disease? At 68, I surely am. And for good reason. Currently, 5.7 million Americans aged 65 and over, which is one in nine people, are living with Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, that number will more than double by 2050.
Retired psychologist Carol Morgan Milberger gives voice to our collective fears in a recent Next Avenue article, saying, “the randomness and severity of dementia terrify me.”
Milberger has done her research and knows that the only known preventative measures are related to lifestyle, and they start earlier in life: eat a healthy diet, exercise, sleep well, maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, consume alcohol in moderation, and stay mentally and socially active (“Take Steps Now to Address Dementia Concerns,” 2023).
But new research indicates that something else will help boost our immunity to Alzheimer’s: becoming spiritually fit.
What is Spiritual Fitness?
The concept of spiritual fitness is well-known in some religious circles and is often introduced by a quote from the Christian bible: “Take time and trouble to keep yourself spiritually fit. Bodily fitness has a certain value, but spiritual fitness is essential, both for this present life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
The military uses the term “spiritual fitness” to refer to an outlook on life that provides a source of resilience during difficult times. The Air Force defines it as “the ability to adhere to beliefs, principles, or values needed to prevail in accomplishing missions.” It is not rooted in any specific religion and may in fact apply to atheists and agnostics who hold a secular philosophy that gives meaning and purpose to their lives.
Whether religious or secular in origin, spiritual fitness involves a set of core values, such as hope, optimism, and altruism. It also includes beliefs that offer peace, comfort, and a reason for living, such as a belief in the “interconnectedness and interdependence of humanity, the natural world, or a higher being” (“Spiritual Fitness and Resilience: A Review of Relevant Constructs, Measures and Links to Well-Being,” 2013).
In recent years, medical professionals and health scientists have also adopted the term, spurred by research showing the health benefits of religiosity and spirituality. According to a review article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, spiritual fitness is a “broad term referring to any activity that brings a divine or metaphysical quality to the individual” (“Spiritual Fitness: A New Dimension in Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention,” 2021).
Ideally, a spiritual orientation over the life course will lead to spiritual fitness, which, like physical fitness, is a gradual developmental process. It is the result of consistent effort along a path of personal growth. However, with practice, it’s also possible to become spiritually fit later in life.
From a health perspective, why would we want to become spiritually fit? Because it offers some of the same benefits as physical fitness. It helps moderate the effects of stress on our minds and bodies. It may also reduce the risk of coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes. And it often has a positive impact on other health behaviors, such as the type of food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, whether we smoke, the amount of alcohol we drink, and whether we use illicit drugs.
And now there is even more reason to claim the importance of spirituality as we age. A study recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease is unequivocal in its conclusion:
“Significantly, having a sense of spiritual connection and optimal personal development, what Jung called individuation, regardless of its origin, reduces risk and slows Alzheimer’s Disease progression” (“Spiritual Fitness: A New Dimension in Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention,” 2021).
Learning From Others
I am familiar with the ravaging effects of dementia. In her late 80’s, my mother was diagnosed with “brain shrinkage,” although she did not go through the battery of tests for Alzheimer’s. When she died at 102, she had no memory of her past, herself or her children and was barely aware of her surroundings. She was a shell of her former self.
As a hospice volunteer for several years, I visited many patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. When they were in the early and moderate stages, I could still talk to them and find other means of connecting (through stories, art, and music, for example). In the final stages, they were mostly lost to the world, and I spent my time listening to and encouraging their caregivers.
One of my patients, Nancy, who was in her late 70’s and lived in a care facility, showed me the importance of outlook to a person’s quality of life. Nancy had end-stage lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain, causing progressive dementia. During much of her life, she had been a practicing Buddhist, and this belief system helped her cope with the many changes in her life. Overall, she was remarkably calm in the face of debilitating losses.
During one of our weekly visits, Nancy recommended that I read Lion’s Roar, a magazine offering Buddhist wisdom for modern times, and showed me a sound meditation that she practiced to center and calm herself. She told me to repeat four words (“Saa, Taa, Naa, Maa”) aloud while moving the fingers on both hands, like this:
When you say “Saa,” touch the index finger to the thumbs.
When you say “Taa,” touch the middle fingers to the thumbs.
When you say “Naa,” touch the ring fingers to the thumbs.
When you say” Maa,” touch the little fingers to the thumbs.
The sequence is always done forward, never backwards: thumb to index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and pinky.
I made note of the practice and later showed the fingering to my husband in casual conversation, but I didn’t think much about it after that. So, you can imagine my surprise when I recently read the article on spiritual fitness in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The practice that the authors recommend to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and slow its progression is the very same meditation!
No Time Like the Present
The authors describe the full practice of Kirtan Kriya (KEER-tun KREE-a), which comes from the Kundalini yoga tradition and has been practiced for thousands of years. It is a technique for developing spiritual fitness.
In Sanskrit, a Kirtan is a song or “sound current,” and Kriya refers to a specific set of movements. Kriyas are used to help bring body, mind, and emotions into alignment. The placement of the tongue on the mouth while saying Saa-Taa-Naa-Maa is said to stimulate 84 acupuncture points, causing a positive biochemical reaction in the brain. Using the finger positions in conjunction with the sounds enhances blood flow to the motor-sensory part of the brain.
In Eastern tradition, the practice is accompanied by a visualization: You imagine pulling the sounds from the top of your head and out through the middle of your forehead (the “third eye”). This further stimulates the brain and helps you focus.
The meditation is done for 12 minutes, during which time you slowly repeat the mantra, aloud for the first two minutes, then in a stage whisper for the next two minutes, then silently in the mind for four minutes, then whispered for two minutes, and finally said aloud for two minutes. (Further information can be found on the Alzheimer’s Association website: https://alzheimersprevention.org/research/kirtan-kriya-yoga-exercise)
After 20 years of research, the authors have concluded that practicing this meditation daily for just eight weeks “improves cognition, slows memory loss, improves mood, and with practice may embolden a person’s spiritual growth in this age of anxiety.” They recommend it for dementia patients, family caregivers, health care providers, and anyone else who wants to improve the health and longevity of their brain.
The authors convinced me that “small shifts in one’s daily routine can make all the difference in Alzheimer’s Disease prevention.”
So, this weekend, I found a YouTube on Kirtan Kriya and completed the 12-minute meditation with a yogi. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but after just one session, I felt mentally refreshed and more alert, as if I had done something good for my brain.
The meditation was simple and relaxing. The hard part will be making it part of my daily routine.
But if I don’t want to spend my final years like my mother, as a vacant occupant in a nursing home, I need to follow the advice of the Nike commercial and “Just do it!”
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.