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Could Yoga Delay Cognitive Decline?

Veteran practitioners had increased thickness in a brain region linked to language and memory.

For those of us who have reached a certain age, few goals are more important than preserving our mental sharpness and warding off dementia. New research from Brazil provides tantalizing—if tentative—evidence of a simple intervention that could help enormously: the regular practice of yoga.

"In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training," notes Elisa Kozasa of Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who co-authored the study with eight colleagues (including Rui Afonso). Yoga—which combines breathing exercises, meditation, and the holding of certain specific postures—apparently provides a vigorous mental workout.

Given the cost to society of late-in-life mental impairment—at least $157 billion annually in the United States alone, according to a Rand Corporation study—the results have potentially widespread implications.

The study featured 21 women who were recruited from Sao Paulo-area studios that taught hatha yoga, the most popular yoga practice in Western countries. All were over 60; on average, they had practiced for nearly 15 years. All had participated in yoga sessions twice or more per week for at least eight years.

"In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training."

An additional 21 women "who were naive to yoga, meditation, or any mind-body intervention were matched to the first group in age, years of formal education, and level of physical activity," the researchers write. All 42 underwent brain scans.

Compared to their counterparts, the longtime yoga practitioners showed significantly greater cortical thickness "in left prefrontal lobe areas associated with attention and other executive functions," the researchers report. Previous research has linked activity in this area of the brain with language and memory.

The researchers aren't sure why the yoga practitioners' brains responded to their training over time in this way, but they note that meditation has been associated with increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. "When performing a yoga posture, muscles are engaged for a minimum amount of time in a state of attention, which is processed in the prefrontal cortex, similarly to what occurs in meditation," they write.

These findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, are far from definitive. The researchers concede that it's possible (if unlikely) that people who already have higher-than-usual cortical thickness are drawn to yoga.

That said, their results parallel those of a 2016 study, which found a three-month course of yoga and meditation helps the elderly improve their faltering memories. So while more research is needed, these are encouraging results, especially in light of the recent study that found popular brain-training games have little to any effect.

If you're trying to stay mentally sharp, perhaps it's time to turn off the computer and get out your yoga mat. Downloading an expensive program may be less effective than a few minutes of downward facing dog.