Yoga for Healthy Aging: Study Finds Yoga Improves Common Age-related Heart and Brain Changes

Aging is more than just gray hair and forehead wrinkles—getting older takes a toll on every part of our bodies, especially our cardiovascular and nervous systems. But a new study suggests that there’s something we can do to reverse the detrimental effects of aging: yoga.

The study focused on the effects of aging on the heart, nervous systems and brain, all three of which are profoundly impacted by the degenerative changes of aging. It’s widely recognized that a less-functional heart increases your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack or stroke. However, aging is also associated with changes in the nervous system and brain that decrease cognitive performance and eventually cause dementia. While these changes might seem like an inevitable part of getting older, the study found that yoga could reverse age-related degeneration affecting the heart, brain, and nervous system, restoring them to “normal or near-normal levels of function.”

Researchers looked at healthy, active men from three age groups (20-29, 30-39, 40-49 years old) with no prior knowledge of yoga. Before the study began, the researchers noted that the older men had significantly more “damage” to their bodies, such as higher cholesterol and blood pressure, and that—because other factors were controlled—these problems seemed to be correlated with their age.

During the study, some of the men were assigned a yoga program that included postures, yogic breathing, and meditation, and told to follow it for three months. At the end of the three months, medical exams showed that the men who had practiced yoga (including the men over 30 and 40) had improved their heart health, and displayed more balanced levels of brain activity and hormones, including reduced levels of the “stress hormones” cortisol and epinephrine. The researchers concluded that yoga could help reverse degenerative changes thought to be caused by aging.

The study’s findings confirm what many have long suspected: yoga can be used to manage heart health. If you have high blood pressure or cholesterol, your doctor has probably advised you to try aerobic exercise like jogging. But yoga—gentle and low-impact as it is—was shown to improve cardiometabolic function, too.

The study also sheds light on the life-long benefits of exercise. It’s well-known that preventative intervention is the best way to avoid heart disease, and medical professionals recommend adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle (eating a healthy diet, exercising) long before you develop hypertension or diabetes. But what makes this particular study so encouraging for those of us who are concerned about our hearts is the idea that we can actually slow or reverse some of the degenerative processes linked to aging.

A particularly interesting finding of this study was that yoga can increase the levels of a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF), which affects our memory, brain plasticity, and mood. Low levels of BDNF are associated with lowered cognitive functioning, as well as depression, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s.

Physical exercise is known to improve brain function by multiplying and strengthening your nerve cells, as well as strengthening the connections between them. This particular study found a connection between yoga and higher levels of BDNF. Higher levels of BDNF not only helps your neurons multiply and protect themselves, it also increases blood flow to your brain and can actually slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

This is even more evidence that there’s a link between practicing yoga and keeping your mind sharp and memory strong. It’s worth pointing out that the neurocognitive effects of yoga are similar to its physical effects. Obviously, the more you practice yoga, the more flexible and strong your muscles will become. Likewise, as studies have indicated, yoga practice can lead to a healthier mind and yoga has also been linked to reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

It’s never too late to start a yoga practice. This study should not only encourage us to grab our yoga mats, but also remind us that yoga ought to be taken seriously as a method of correcting and managing our overall health. The takeaway here—the fact that study participants improved their health regardless of how old they were—is even more evidence that yoga can facilitate healthy aging.