AGING
May 17, 2016

Yoga, For Body And Brain

Skip the brain-training. Yoga and meditation can do more for your mood and memory.

People of all ages have been turning to yoga and meditation to limber their bodies and calm their minds. Both have both enjoyed a huge rise in popularity in the West, fueled in part by the many scientific studies trumpeting their benefits.

As the senior moments multiply, aging baby boomers have been flocking to brain training exercises to improve their memories.

Now it appears that yoga limbers up the mind as effectively as it does the body. In fact, a study just published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease finds that when it comes to keeping memory sharp, yoga with a side of meditation may be superior to brain training programs designed to slow cognitive decline.

Train the Body — And the Mind
That is what researchers found when they offered a group of over-55-year-olds the opportunity to do yoga and meditate or take part in a brain-training program for 12 weeks. As the senior moments multiply, aging baby boomers have been flocking to brain training exercises to improve their memories, so researchers designed a study to see what are the best ways to keep memory sharp.

Half of the participants in the study took a Kundalini Yoga class once a week and learned a kind of meditation called Kirtan Kriya to practice at home.

The other half of the group worked on cognition and memory exercises that are known to help cognitive function (think Lumosity and similar programs).

All the people in the study had been experiencing lapses in memory in their daily lives, though none had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Their brains were scanned at the beginning and end of the 12-week study period, and they took tests to assess their thinking and memory skills, as well as other aspects of their mental health.

Seeing Improvements in Mood and Memory
Everyone in both groups had improvements in verbal memory skills, but the people in the yoga group had significantly more improvement in visual-spatial memory than those in the brain-training group. Visual-spatial memory is what we use when we’re driving or recalling locations from memory. Equally interesting was that these changes were apparent in the MRI scans of the participants’ brains.

It wasn't that yoga and meditation were better for memory than brain training, they just seemed to offer a wider range of benefits. “Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided a broader benefit than memory training because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills,” said study author, Helen Lavretsky. “Interestingly, the yoga/kirtan group did better over time in mood versus the memory training group.”

The participants in the yoga group also had better coping skills and were more resilient in the face of stress than the other group.

The Emotional Side of Memory Loss
These skills and capacities are valuable for anyone at any time, but they’re particularly useful for people who are aging and experiencing memory loss. “When you have memory loss, you can get quite anxious about that and it can lead to depression,” said Lavretsky. Yoga and meditation are known to help with both.

The habits and practices we take time for affect not only our physical fitness, but our mental and psychological fitness as well, as more and more research shows. Yoga and meditation have been around for thousands of years, and their benefits appear to be supported by science.

“…[A] simple, safe and low-cost solution to improving your brain fitness.”

“Historically and anecdotally, yoga has been thought to be beneficial in aging well, but this is the scientific demonstration of that benefit,” said Harris Eyre, another researcher. “We're converting historical wisdom into the high level of evidence required for doctors to recommend therapy to their patients.”

What Do You Have to Lose?
If you’re thinking about taking up yoga or meditation, these results give you yet another reason to give them a try. Taking a class is a good way to start, and many gyms and community centers offer them. If that’s not possible, there are online guides for how to begin. These practices can help at any age, but developing a regimen that keeps us physically and emotionally centered and resilient as we age seems especially valuable.

“If you or your relatives are trying to improve your memory or offset the risk for developing memory loss or dementia,” said Lavretsky, a professor at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, “regular practice of yoga and meditation could be a simple, safe and low-cost solution to improving your brain fitness.”

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