Meet the Anesthesiologist who Started the Alzheimer’s Prevention Movement
8 Questions for Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa
By Annie Fenn, MD
Google “brain health” and “meditation” and more than 62 million citations come up. Back when UCSF-trained anesthesiologist Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. started looking into how meditation impacts the brain’s ability to resist Alzheimer’s, there would have been no hits at all. Not to mention, this was before the internet and no one in the medical community was even talking about Alzheimer’s prevention.
Fast forward 30 years: Dr. Khalsa is the founder of the Alzheimer’s Prevention and Research Foundation (APRF), has published over 40 papers on the link between lifestyle and dementia, and has participated in multiple landmark clinical trials like the FINGER study. His organization was the first to offer a training program in brain longevity for allied health professionals. Throughout his career, Dr. Khalsa has delivered the clear message that meditation and other lifestyle habits are important tools to slow down the aging of the brain.
I became acquainted with Dr. Khalsa through his work in Alzheimer’s prevention and was honored to join APRF as a member of its Medical and Scientific Advisory Council. At age 77, as Dr. Khalsa prepares to share some of his future responsibility as the leader of APRF, he answers my questions about his legacy, the future, and what you can do to protect your brain.
8 Questions for Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa
Brain Health Kitchen (BHK): You have been studying the impact of meditation on the brain since you were in medical training. As an anesthesiologist, what first sparked your interest in brain health and dementia?
Dr. Khalsa: As an anesthesiologist, I knew about how stress is terrible for your body and brain. After taking basic and advanced training in mind/body medicine at Harvard, I came to appreciate that connection even more. I then became involved in treating chronic pain patients at The University of Arizona and designed a pain program using holistic methods not unlike our 4 Pillars Of Brain Longevity.
What I discovered was that my pain patients, many of whom also had memory loss, recovered their memory using this program.
I then read a book called Peak Performance by Charles Garfield, Ph.D., which put the icing on the cake for me in that it combined what I knew from practicing yoga and meditation myself, and studying with a great master. I more fully appreciated the power of your mind to manifest health and well-being.
BHK: Kirtan Kriya, a chanting yoga meditation, has been the focus of much of your research. Please explain what happens to the brain at a cellular level during this practice.
Dr. Khalsa: What we know is that doing Kirtan Kriya (KK), a fast, safe, and effective, memory meditation for only 12 minutes a day, has profound effects on brain cells, increasing their connections, improving their communication, reducing inflammation, and rejuvenating their chemistry. Moreover, telomeres, a marker of DNA aging, become younger too, so your brain is actually rejuvenated. The neurons or brain cells in all anatomical areas of the brain function much more efficiently. Beyond that, as revealed by the ancient sages of India, who brought us KK, the brain is actually cleansed. This is the same as the cerebral spinal fluid circulating and giving you a cleaner brain. All of these effects improve memory and also allow a person to bring new balance to their personality and connect to their own spirit and the divine.
BHK: Could you go into the impact on telomeres (the cap on each strand of DNA) in more detail? Your research shows that meditation is linked to longer telomeres, a marker for longevity. How were you able to prove that meditation changes gene expression and what do you think the mechanism is?
Dr. Khalsa: We’ve studied telomeres by 2 mechanisms: measuring telomerase, the enzyme that keeps telomeres healthy and long, and by measuring the telomere itself. In all our research in which telomeres or telomerase were measured, they were made longer and hence younger by practicing KK.
I believe the actual mechanism is not only the reduction of stress, which it most certainly is, but also the creation of a sense of well-being, including a reduction of anxiety and depression and especially forging a connection to one’s spirit.
Beyond that, just as stress and negative emotions send unhealthy signals to our cells and thus propel molecules of inflammation and essentially “bad vibes” throughout the body, when you meditate you send positive, “feel good” signals to your cells. Then via second and third chemical messengers, these so-called signals are transferred deep into your cell, including to the nucleus and DNA. The DNA then creates messenger RNA, which generates other chemicals such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, to tell your deepest being that everything is all right. That’s the ultimate secret sauce of KK and brain longevity and is responsible for the re-youthing of your telomeres.
BHK: Brain imaging has been a key part of your research. I’d love to hear how you envision the future of screening for Alzheimer’s disease. Will brain imaging be a key tool for early diagnosis?
Dr. Khalsa: Certainly scanning can play an important part of a complete diagnostic workup. I think the best way to evaluate a person complaining of cognitive decline, however, is to take a careful history and physical exam. Then obtain a wide variety of laboratory tests. I hope that never changes, even in this era of super-high technology. I’m not in favor of the idea of doctors becoming unengaged cyborgs.
The next tool I’d like to recommend when evaluating someone with memory loss is a complete neurocognitive exam where the patient takes a comprehensive memory test, not just the 10-minute variety.
Finally, a scan of some sort is very valuable to “look inside” the brain to discover if the changes seen are consistent with early memory loss, such as seen in Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), Alzheimer’s disease, “normal” aging or perhaps some other malady. There are many types of scans and more being developed all the time: functional MRI, CT scans, PET scans, and SPECT scans, favored by some professionals in this area.
BHK: How does one begin a meditation practice? What are your tips for making the practice consistent?
Dr. Khalsa: To begin you simply decide to start. Then make a decision to do it for 40 days, which is how long it takes your brain, mind, and spirit to establish a good routine and get the maximum effect.
Next, you keep up with your daily practice and as time goes on you gain even more benefits. A great way to begin is by using our Kirtan Kriya digital recording.
BHK: In 2021 you published this must-read paper (with Dr. Andrew Newberg ) in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease about Spiritual Fitness. What is this and how can it help build brain resiliency?
Dr. Khalsa: Spiritual Fitness, not unlike physical fitness, implies an action. Becoming spiritually fit or developing spiritual well-being, rarely, if ever, happens by itself. Work must be done. That may be a regular sadhana, praying, going to church, being in nature or whatever. However, the research shows that you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. You simply have to be dedicated to discovering your true nature, which is divine. As beloved writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before are tiny matters compared to what lies within.” And going back 600 years or so a great master named Guru Arjan said, “All things are within the heart, the home of the self. Outside there is nothing. Those who look outside of themselves are left wandering in doubt.”