Practicing Yoga Can Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease

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More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease; a figure experts project to double by the year 2050. Alzheimer’s is the seventh leading cause of death and the number one cause of dementia in the U.S.

While lifestyle factors like eating brain-boosting foods and managing high blood pressure can help prevent it, many adults are still at high risk. However, recent research suggests another lifestyle habit — the ancient yet powerful practice of yoga — may be especially effective. 

Can Yoga Prevent Age-Related Cognitive Decline?

It’s no secret that yoga offers many benefits for physical and mental health: weight loss, improved balance and flexibility, and even reduced depression symptoms, to name a few. 

But a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)  suggests yoga can be a potent ally in preserving cognitive function — especially if it involves a variety of activities like meditation, breathwork, mudras (shapes or positions made with the fingers), and chanting, all found in Kundalini.

Led by UCLA Health Psychiatrist and certified Kundalini instructor Dr. Helen Lavretsky, this study focused on postmenopausal women who are patients at a cardiology clinic. This demographic has an increased risk of Alzheimer’s due to hormonal changes and heart health factors.

The study featured two groups: one practicing conventional memory enhancement training developed by the UCLA Longevity Center and the other practicing yoga. 

Researchers found that both groups experienced improvements in their memory. However, the two approaches impacted different brain areas, and yoga offered a broader range of cognitive health benefits than conventional memory enhancement training.

Read More: The Mind and Body Benefits of Yoga That Are Backed by Science

Yoga’s Broad-Spectrum Benefits for Cognitive Health

Participants practicing Kundalini yoga in Lavretsky’s study experienced significant positive changes, including:

  • Improved memory: Participants reported noticeable improvements in their perceived memory capabilities.

  • Brain matter preservation: MRI scans showed that yoga helped prevent the deterioration of brain matter, which is crucial for maintaining cognitive function.

  • Increased hippocampal connectivity: As revealed in MRIs, this finding was important, as this area of the brain is essential for both memory and stress management.

  • Anti-inflammatory and anti-aging benefits: Blood tests revealed increased gene expression associated with reducing inflammation and slowing aging processes — namely, improved peripheral cytokine activity or signaling proteins within the immune system. Better cytokine activity suggests a healthier immune response, which is particularly relevant in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, which research has associated with systemic inflammation.

Lavretsky’s team also documented changes in neuroplasticity in the yoga group or improvements in the brain’s ability to adapt and change. This means the brain can form new connections, helping us learn, recover from injuries, or adjust to changes in our environment. 

This is crucial because researchers have linked Alzheimer’s to alterations in the brain’s physical structure, as well as the immune system. So, boosting neuroplasticity could help heal brain damage.

This suggests that yoga could be a powerful way to combat cognitive decline from several angles — not just one.  

Read More: A New Treatment for Alzheimer’s? It Starts With Lifestyle

Traditional Memory Enhancement Training vs. Yoga

The memory training group, who did exercises such as storytelling and word association to improve recall, also experienced long-term memory improvements and stimulation of hippocampal connectivity. 

However, these benefits were more narrow in scope and didn’t include improvements in overall brain health, stress reduction, or anti-aging effects — all positive outcomes of practicing yoga. 

“Yoga stimulates multiple areas [of the brain], including frontal lobes, and it’s that multitasking that enhances frontal lobes and translates into executive function and complex action,” Lavretsky says. “The more elements you include, the more brain areas you stimulate.” 

So, the various aspects of Kundalini yoga work together to promote more substantial neuroplastic effects. “Basically, all these things are helpful for the brain and the body, and the best idea is to combine as many elements as possible because it will train different parts of the brain,” Lavretsky adds. 

That’s why she recommends practicing yoga, mindfulness, and memory training for a comprehensive strategy to protect against cognitive decline. 

Read More: This Is How Exercise Affects the Brain

Which Style of Yoga is Best to Combat Cognitive Decline?

Lavretsky’s studies have primarily focused on Kundalini, because it’s an accessible form of yoga for people of all ages and physical capabilities. But, she emphasizes that one form of yoga isn’t necessarily better than others.

She recommends trying different styles that incorporate various brain-stimulating activities like physical movement, meditation, breathwork, and/or chanting and sticking with whichever brings you the most joy.

The key is to start as early as possible. She even recommends developing a yoga practice during pregnancy and introducing your child to the practice as early as age two. 

“There are actually studies of women who were meditating through pregnancy versus not, and the children of the meditating mothers achieve milestones and cognitive development faster than the other ones,” she says. 

This highlights the incredible potential of one of yoga’s primary elements to strengthen cognitive health. 

Read More: 10 Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Brain

How Often To Practice Yoga for Cognitive Health

If you’re new to yoga, Lavretsky recommends practicing at least as often as her study subjects did: once a week in a group-class setting, and daily, at-home, for around 15 minutes. 

She recommends group classes for the added element of connection — another key factor in cognitive health. But if you’d rather practice more often, “The more, the merrier,” she says. 

She also recommends incorporating meditation and mindfulness exercises into your daily routine to boost yoga’s cognitive benefits.

Yoga is far more than a stress-relieving workout; it’s a holistic approach to cognitive and overall wellness, addressing not just the mind but the body and spirit. Regardless of your age, if you’re concerned about cognitive decline, exploring this ancient practice could be an important step toward living a longer, healthier life.

Read More: Does Yoga Really Detoxify the Body?

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