Can Yoga Help Keep Your Brain Young? An Interview with Dr. Baxter Bell

Baxter Bell M.D. is a full-time yoga therapist, yoga therapy teacher and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. He is a board member of the International Association of Yoga Therapy, (IAYT), and the co-founder and writer for the popular “Yoga for Healthy Aging” blog where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. In this interview with Yoga U Online, Baxter discusses the direct and indirect benefits of yoga for brain health, and his new webinar: Yoga for Your Brain: A New Formula for Healthy Aging

 

Yoga U Online: When we think of yoga and healthy aging, we usually think of things like improving mobility or retaining the range of motion of the joints. However, the holy grail of efforts to age well really lies in slowing the aging of the brain. Do we have any ability to prevent those brain related conditions, like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease?

Dr. Baxter Bell: Some of the risk factors for developing those Alzheimer’s, dementia, or Parkinson’s are genetic predispositions. However, there are also many lifestyle factors that seem to put you at a higher risk or a lesser risk. Though it is unclear how, we know that diet may play a role. We also know that appropriate sleep is very important in lowering our risk for developing conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

And, in certain areas, yoga is very effective at promoting lifestyle changes that may prove down the road to actually be ways to prevent these conditions. Right now, we can’t make bold statements, but it makes sense that diet, movement and exercise will have positive effects on our health and brain as we age. Staying active, not only physically but socially as well, is another way that we can actually improve brain health. We also know that just using yoga tools to improve our stress management skills also can have a potentially very powerful effect on overall brain health as we get older.

Yoga U Online: So yoga might have an effect on preventing or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s or dementia by mediating positive lifestyle changes. Is there any evidence that yoga would have a more direct effect?

Dr. Baxter Bell: Indeed, there was a recent study that looked at the effects of yoga on cognitive functioning, which was done on healthy older adults. These weren’t people that had Alzheimer’s or dementia; they were healthy older adults at the age of about sixty-two. They took a look at one group that did yoga three times a week for eight weeks and a control group that did stretching three times a week for the same period of time to see if it affected cognitive functioning and if it affected stress levels. Interestingly, they noted that cortisol levels, which are a marker for ongoing levels of stress, were lower in the yoga group and actually increased in the stretching group. It’s fascinating.

The second thing they found is that the yoga group had improvement in memory skills and also in cognitive processing when they had to make quick decisions on a computer test. They did better after eight weeks than when they started the program. And, they did better compared to the group that did the stretching. So we’ve got healthy people in their early sixties who are practicing yoga regularly, who hadn’t done so before, who are having improvements in memory, improvements in cognitive functioning, and a lowering of stress which may have a preventative effect on the brain over time.

This kind of information may prove helpful down the road if we had a longer, bigger study that looks at people who have early dementia, and we try to apply the yoga tools in that group. We may find that these early studies are going to provide momentum and possible benefits of yoga in those more specific cases.

Yoga U Online: Did the researchers in the study put forward any theory for how those apparently more direct effects of yoga on memory and cognitive function might occur?

Dr. Baxter Bell: They discussed the fact that yoga is theorized to increase what was called the top-down and bottom-up operating of the whole nervous system. Top-down is, “I'm getting a little hungry. It’s been awhile since I had breakfast.” I start to formulate a plan on what I’d like to do for lunch. Then, my brain allows me, through my whole body, to accomplish that based on past memories and present circumstances. That’s top-down operation. Bottom-up operation is when something happens suddenly and unexpectedly and I have to make a quick decision. This information comes in through my senses, it goes up through a certain processing area in my brain before it goes into my conscious mind, and then I respond very quickly to what’s happening. Yoga seems to improve both directionalities of brain functioning.

The other thing we know is that yoga tends to improve the ability to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system so that autonomic function (the background operating systems of our body) seem to work more effectively and efficiently in being able to shift back and forth between times of action and attention and times of relaxation and restoration.

If we look at the brains of long-term meditators who are really good at meditating, we notice that the actual structure of their brain changes over time. They are more likely to have thicker areas in the brain, which is unusual because as we age, certain areas typically get thinner. We even see that the grooves, the gyrus, in the brain, are actually deeper and there are more of them--it's as if the brain is actually changing and growing in response to certain yogic practices that we can do. Those are some of the really interesting ways that yoga seems to have a more direct effect in both function and form of your brain.

Yoga U Online: Are there specific yoga sequences or ways of practicing that would be more beneficial for an aging brain or is it just yoga, period?

Dr. Baxter Bell: We can use yoga to improve learning. That will be an aspect of our brain that we keep healthy. There might be certain ways of practicing that would highlight that aspect of benefit. One of our colleagues at Yoga for Healthy Aging often says, “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain." In my upcoming course, we’ll talk about how cardiovascular practices directly will impact your brain health. So that’s another way that you could practice. Additionally, looking at yoga practices that are strictly for stress management might be different from those other two ways of practicing while also being great for healthy aging.

Yoga U Online: Tell us about your upcoming course on Yoga U on the effects of yoga for healthy brain aging.  

Dr. Baxter Bell: I always think it’s good to have a basic understanding of the components of the brain and how they work, and because the brain is so complex, we’re going to keep it pretty straightforward and understandable for everybody listening. We’ll talk about normal changes that take place in the human brain as we get a little bit older: things that are expected and not out of the ordinary. We’ll talk about the frequency with which those things happen, and how they affect most people.

We’ll take a look at how yoga can impact the aging brain in a positive way. I’ll give an understanding of some of the concepts of healthy aging and how they impact how we look at the brain. Then, we’ll look at some actual practices that we can incorporate now and in the future to keep the brain healthy over time.

We’ll also talk about more studies like the one that we talked about today that will highlight the exciting ways that yoga can impact brain health. The great news is that whether you’re healthy or not healthy, this information is going to be useful for you. So for those of us out there that are actually in good shape right now, it’s great to be able to incorporate some of these ideas into our practice so that ideally, we’ll stay healthy as time goes on.

 

Interested in learning more about yoga for healthy aging and your brain on yoga? Check out our online Course with Dr. Baxter Bell - Yoga for Your Brain: A New Formula for Healthy Aging.