Importance: Episodic memory and executive function are essential aspects of cognitive functioning that decline with aging. This decline may be ameliorable with lifestyle interventions.
Objective: To determine whether mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), exercise, or a combination of both improve cognitive function in older adults.
Design, setting, and participants: This 2 × 2 factorial randomized clinical trial was conducted at 2 US sites (Washington University in St Louis and University of California, San Diego). A total of 585 older adults (aged 65-84 y) with subjective cognitive concerns, but not dementia, were randomized (enrollment from November 19, 2015, to January 23, 2019; final follow-up on March 16, 2020).
Interventions: Participants were randomized to undergo the following interventions: MBSR with a target of 60 minutes daily of meditation (n = 150); exercise with aerobic, strength, and functional components with a target of at least 300 minutes weekly (n = 138); combined MBSR and exercise (n = 144); or a health education control group (n = 153). Interventions lasted 18 months and consisted of group-based classes and home practice.
Main outcomes and measures: The 2 primary outcomes were composites of episodic memory and executive function (standardized to a mean [SD] of 0 ; higher composite scores indicate better cognitive performance) from neuropsychological testing; the primary end point was 6 months and the secondary end point was 18 months. There were 5 reported secondary outcomes: hippocampal volume and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex thickness and surface area from structural magnetic resonance imaging and functional cognitive capacity and self-reported cognitive concerns.
Results: Among 585 randomized participants (mean age, 71.5 years; 424 [72.5%] women), 568 (97.1%) completed 6 months in the trial and 475 (81.2%) completed 18 months. At 6 months, there was no significant effect of mindfulness training or exercise on episodic memory (MBSR vs no MBSR: 0.44 vs 0.48; mean difference, -0.04 points [95% CI, -0.15 to 0.07]; P = .50; exercise vs no exercise: 0.49 vs 0.42; difference, 0.07 [95% CI, -0.04 to 0.17]; P = .23) or executive function (MBSR vs no MBSR: 0.39 vs 0.31; mean difference, 0.08 points [95% CI, -0.02 to 0.19]; P = .12; exercise vs no exercise: 0.39 vs 0.32; difference, 0.07 [95% CI, -0.03 to 0.18]; P = .17) and there were no intervention effects at the secondary end point of 18 months. There was no significant interaction between mindfulness training and exercise (P = .93 for memory and P = .29 for executive function) at 6 months. Of the 5 prespecified secondary outcomes, none showed a significant improvement with either intervention compared with those not receiving the intervention.
Conclusions and relevance: Among older adults with subjective cognitive concerns, mindfulness training, exercise, or both did not result in significant differences in improvement in episodic memory or executive function at 6 months. The findings do not support the use of these interventions for improving cognition in older adults with subjective cognitive concerns.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02665481.