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Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

A while back, Perry Wison reported on an experiment for older people — aged 65-84. About 800 were randomized to 4 groups:learn a form of mindfulness meditation, get into exercise, get exposure to both, or get exposure to neither. The outcome measures were related to changes

in memory or “cognitive decline.” 

The researcher – and Perry Wilson! – were surprised. The improvement from these interventions was very small.

Perry made a video summarizing the study.

So why was there so little change?

Dr. Wilson ruled out the main objections. He’s convinced people did carry out the interventions. They had a lot to do: 300 minutes of exercise per week and a full hour of meditation every day. As he says, people randomized to both conditions had the equivalent of a full-time job.

I wouldn’t be too quick to accept these results. 

First, who was the population under study? They were sedentary adults who weren’t doing other things. Who’s got time to participate in this study? I certainly wouldn’t.

Second. I’d like to know more about the interventions. What kind of meditation and exercise did they use? What kind of exercise? Even transcendental meditation calls for 40 minutes a day, not an hour. 

And 60 minutes of exercise is a lot for sedentary people. What could they be doing?

Were these activities enjoyable? Or did people work through the to get a promised reward.

Finally, both exercisers and meditators tend to be highly self-motivated. Both tend to get better over time. This trial started with passive people and lasted 18 months. 

It may be hard to test these activities with a controlled study. We have seen small results from all participants, apparently because of the intervention effect. We hear over and over: exercise is the best protection from the negative effects of aging

I’m convinced that’s true: if nothing else, we can move more easily. It’s frustrating to hear about aging people who can’t bend over to pick up a paper or get in and out of cars easily.

At the same time, there’s no magic. Some people reach a point where they can’t exercise. Meditation doesn’t come easily to some people and there are so many forms of meditation.

The study’s title – a setback for wellness – may be misleading. There *are* steps to prevent cognitive decline. At the same time, it’s not magic and not everyone will benefit. Doctors need to be very careful when they make promises.