Yoga and Meditation Boost Brain Function In Aging Adults New Study Shows

By: 
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500

Most of us experience some signs of decreased mental function as we age. Now, a new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease shows that weekly yoga and daily meditation practice may boost memory and reduce depression.

Although some loss in memory is common among aging adults, mild cognitive impairment, often characterized by problems with thinking, language, memory, and judgment, is considered a precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease and more severe forms of dementia. As such, there is increasing interest in developing programs that may stave off cognitive decline.

Headed up by a group of researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, this study examined whether older adults with mild cognitive impairment demonstrate changes in brain functioning and connectivity following participation in either a 12-week yoga intervention (n=15), or a 12-week, standardized memory enhancement training (MET) program (N=11). MET is considered the “gold standard” of memory training for elderly adults.

To be included in the study, adult volunteers needed to be age 55 years or older, have subjective memory complaints, possess sufficient proficiency in English to participate in the MET or yoga intervention, and be capable of providing informed consent. Those with current or past severe psychiatric disorders (Axis I), disabilities preventing full participation in the intervention, a diagnosis of dementia, use of psychoactive medication, participation in cognitive training, or a current or prior history of yoga were excluded.

Participants were randomly assigned to the yoga or memory enhancement training group. Prior to program onset, adults underwent a screening procedure that included an interview, blood tests, and examinations of health status, mood, and neurological and memory functioning, They then underwent resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) screening for approximately 5-minutes. A similar assessment protocol was administered following the intervention approximately 12 weeks later.

Yoga group members received training in Kirtan Kriya meditation, and Kriya yoga once per week for 12-weeks. Kirtan Kriya meditation involves chanting mantra, hand movements (mudras), and visualization. Individuals in the yoga group were asked to perform12-min of Kirtan Kriya meditation daily. Weekly, 60-minute Kriya yoga classes consisted of a standardized practice that included “tuning in” (5 min), a 10 minute warm-up, 10 min of breath training (pranayama), 20 minutes of postures, breath and sound (kriya), followed by meditation (11 min), and 4 min of rest (savasana). Handouts and CDs of the 12-minute Kirtan Kriya practice were provided.

The memory enhancement protocol is a scripted program developed by researchers at the UCLA Longevity Center. Its components include education about memory, instruction about specific memory strategies, a home practice, and discussion of factors that may impede memory such as anxiety, negative expectations and low self-confidence. Participants attended 12, weekly sessions devoted to practicing techniques including tools for learning faces, names and lists, organizational strategies, and reviewing homework.

Yoga Helps Improve Brain Function

Immediately following the 12-week intervention, both yoga and memory group participants demonstrated significant improvement on most measures of memory. This suggests that that yoga intervention was comparable to the evidence-based memory enhancement training. What’s more, members of the yoga group showed significant improvements in depression, and visouspatial memory compared to those in the memory group. 

Brain imaging from both groups showed a significant relationship between changes in connectivity of the default mode network, language network, and superior parietal network, and improvements in long-term declarative memory performance. In other words, adults in both the yoga and memory training groups showed increases in verbal memory performance. Yoga participants also developed more communication between the regions of the brain that control attention, suggesting an improved capacity to initiate and sustain focus.

Yoga and Stress Reduction May Be Key to Brain Health

Although this study does not address the mechanisms through which yoga and meditation may improve cognitive function, emerging research suggests that stress reduction is a promising candidate. The hippocampus, a brain structure essential for long-term memory consolidation and spatial navigation, is particularly susceptible to stress. It is also one of the first regions of the brain which, when damaged, leads to the memory loss and disorientation seen in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

In a recent review of 25 randomized controlled trials examining the published evidence of the effects of breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and other mindfulness practices (or their combination) on physiological indicators of stress, regular practice was linked to improved stress regulation, as well as decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression across diverse samples of participants. 

Yoga and meditation were also related to increased volume and functional connectivity of the hippocampus, suggesting that individuals who practice regularly may enhance brain function by reducing stress and increasing the resilience of brain structures related to memory.

All told, results of this study suggest that yoga and active meditation techniques like Kirtan Kriya may bolster cognitive function as much as a well-established, targeted  memory-enhancement program. This is great news for those hoping to protect their brains from age-related decline.


More from Dr. Bullock and YogaUOnline - Yoga for Life: Breaking the Stress Cycle.

For more on yoga and brain functioning, see Grace's article Yoga and Meditation Keep Your Brain Resilient Study Shows.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: 7 Skills for Social Change. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com.

Sources

Eyre, H.A., Acevedo, B., Yang, H., Siddarth, Pr., Van Dyk, K. et al. (2016). Changes in neural connectivity and memory following a yoga intervention for older adults: A pilot study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 52, 673-684.

Pascoe, M.C. & Bauer, I.E. (2015). A systematic review of randomized control trials on the effects of yoga on stress measures and mood. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 68, 270-282.