Exercise is a key component when implementing healthy lifestyle changes to prevent the onset of particular diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias. Prior research points to aerobic exercise being the most beneficial; however, this type of vigorous is not always feasible or accessible to older adults who are looking to use physical activity as a preventative measure against dementia.
At the end of 2019, the journal Brain Plasticity published a review of 11 studies that illuminate the possibility of yoga as an alternative to garnering the benefits aerobic exercise offers to prevent memory loss.
All eleven of these yoga-based studies employed the use of brain-imaging technologies, like MRI, to determine brain volume and function of all participants. Researchers in these studies found that participants who practiced yoga not only retained, but increased the size of, the hippocampus. This brain structure is considered to be the center for memory and cognition. Not coincidentally, it’s also one of the first affected by dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. It can stand to be reasoned, therefore, that yoga may help combat age-related memory loss and even increase an individual’s ability to retain memory. The studies included both participants that had zero prior experience practicing yoga and regular yoga practitioners.
So how is this ancient practice benefiting the brain and its ability to create and maintain memories?
Neha Gothe, a co-author of the review and an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explained that practicing yoga forces the brain to use the same neural pathways in the brain that are responsible for memory. This idea circles back to a famous adage “use it or lose it”. By keeping these pathways reinforced, they are being maintained and strengthened, thereby increasing the odds of maintaining and strengthening memory and cognition.
The type of yoga practiced is also relevant to the above-named theory. All eleven studies published in the review specifically looked at Hatha yoga, a type of yoga which combines movement, breathing and meditation. Additionally, it can have repetitive sequences, such as a sun salutation. Repeating the same motions and breathing patterns would lend to the reinforcement of the pathways involved in both yoga and memory.
Like other activities designed to stimulate the brain, yoga requires the individual to engage their brain in the current moment. Anyone who has taken a yoga class will have heard an instructor’s cue to focus on your breath, body and thoughts-all at the same time. This type of mental stimulation is beneficial to individuals of any age, including those looking to prevent their risk of dementia.
It’s important to note that you don’t have to be a lifelong yogi to reap the benefits this discipline has to offer. Yoga of any kind can be beneficial, whether the participant is sitting on a yoga mat or a chair or taking a class in person or a virtual session. This wonderfully holistic practice can be made accessible to virtually everyone.
Residents at Dolan Memory Care Homes benefit from a myriad of opportunities to practice yoga. A registered yoga teacher rotates the Dolan homes offering adaptive and accessible classes. Additionally, a Dolan social worker is also a registered yoga teacher and will often teach impromptu classes.