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Yoga May Help Stave Off Dementia

In a new study, three months of practice helped seniors improve their faltering memories.
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Devotees of yoga swear it enhances both physical and mental health. Studies are beginning to provide evidence that they’re right — including a just-published one that suggests the ancient practice offers a surprising benefit.

It finds a three-month course of yoga and meditation helps elderly people improve their faltering memories, and thereby decreases their likelihood of developing dementia. Its impact was comparable to that of an evidence-based memory-training program.

“Yoga may be helpful in enhancing memory recall, specifically visual memory encoding,” a research team from the University of California-Los Angeles, led by psychiatrists Helen Lavretsy and Harris Eyre, writes in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Encoding, a crucial first step in creating new memories, is the process in which something we perceive is converted into a mental construct that can be stored within the brain, and later retrieved.

The study featured 25 people above the age of 55 who had complained of memory loss and were rated as “questionable” (one step below “mild”) on the standard scale of clinical dementia. That, the researchers note, is the optimum time to bolster the brain to prevent or delay serious impairment.

Fourteen of them took part in a three-month Kundalini yoga practice, which included hour-long weekly sessions, and a daily meditation, during which they chanted “aloud, then in a whisper, and then silently for a total of 11 minutes.”

The other 11 participants completed a three-month program developed at UCLA that uses various educational and home-practice techniques that have been shown to improve memory. These include “verbal associative techniques, such as the use of stories, to remember lists,” and “learning memory habits to recall where one places items.”

All participants underwent brain scans at the beginning and end of the 12-week program.

“Overall, we found comparable changes for both yoga and (the evidence-based training program),” the researchers report. While both groups “showed resting-state brain activity changes reflecting improvements in memory,” those who underwent yoga training also “improved significantly in depression.”

That’s a very significant side benefit, and one that is consistent with previous research.

“Yoga is believed to exert its effect via lowering stress, lowering inflammation, enhancing neuroplasticity processes, increasing antioxidant levels, and increasing telomerase activity,” the researchers note. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to re-organize itself by forming new neural connections; telomeres are caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes and allow them to function properly.

This is a small study; replication and elaboration will be needed before one can draw any definitive conclusions. But it’s encouraging to learn doing downward-facing dog may help us stave off that downward spiral into dementia.