Yoga May Help Improve Brain Health for Women at High Risk for Alzheimer’s

Yoga has been linked with a variety of health benefits, including improvements to balance and strength, a lessening of arthritis symptoms, better sleep, and stress management. A new study finds that it may also be helpful for women at risk of Alzheimer’s.

Research recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease used MRI imaging to gauge the impacts of Kundalini yoga on the brains of older women with subjective memory decline and cardiovascular risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

Outdoor yoga class with women

The findings showed that compared with memory enhancement training (MET), which uses a variety of strategies to improve memory, yoga was better able to target stress-impacted connectivity in the hippocampus. This may help with memory decline. However, MET was better at targeting sensory-integration portions of the hippocampus, which may support better memory reliability. The team says this indicates Kundalini yoga does offer some benefit for high-risk women.

Dr. Helen Lavretsky, lead researcher and geriatric psychiatrist, explains, “The key takeaway is that this study adds to the literature supporting the benefits of yoga for brain health, especially for women who have greater perceived stress and subjective memory impairment. This gentle form of yoga, which focuses more on breathing and mental engagement than on movement, like other forms of yoga, is ideal for older adults who may have some physical limitations.”

The study, conducted by researchers from UCLA, included 22 women already taking part in a larger trial studying yoga’s impact on Alzheimer’s risk. They were split evenly into two groups: one which underwent yoga intervention and one which underwent MET. The average age of the first group was 61, with an average age of 65 in the second. All had reported experiencing a decline in memory during the prior year, as well as at least one cardiovascular risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

Older woman seated on yoga mat

Each group underwent 60-minute, in-person weekly sessions for 12 weeks, with assigned daily homework or practice sessions. For the yoga group, that included at-home Kirtan Kriya yoga, which has a chanting component linked with an improvement in respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous system functions.

To gauge the impacts of these sessions, the research team used specialized functional MRI to establish baseline connectivity in the hippocampus and then to re-examine it after the interventions.

Their findings indicated that yoga benefitted hippocampal connectivity impacted by stress, which could help with processing information into memory. Ultimately, that could mean better episodic memory. Meanwhile, MET uses a variety of verbal, visual, and spatial associations to boost memory, which may be why it was found to improve sensory integration into memory. That could help memory become more reliable. The authors say this indicates that both MET and yoga can provide benefits for high-risk women.

The authors write, “These results add to the literature on the benefits of yoga for brain health and further indicate yoga as a promising practice for older women with increased AD risk, especially those with greater perceived stress.”

Smiling older woman on yoga mat outdoors

To read the whole study, click here.

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