How Yoga Could Help Older Women Ward Off Alzheimer’s

Older Woman Yoga Glowing

A recent study found Kundalini yoga beneficial for older women at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, improving brain activity in a stress-impacted area linked to memory decline. This gentle yoga form appeared more beneficial for hippocampal connectivity, a brain area critical for learning and memory, compared to traditional memory enhancement training (MET), particularly in addressing stress-related issues.

A study conducted by UCLA Health reveals that Kundalini yoga increases brain activity in a region impacted by stress and linked to memory decline.

A study conducted by UCLA Health found that Kundalini yoga, a form of yoga that emphasizes breath control, meditation, and visualization techniques, showed promise in benefiting elderly women who had risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and concerns about episodes of memory decline.

Scientists from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA have utilized a specific form of MRI, which can monitor activity in various areas and sub-areas of the brain. Their research showed that Kundalini yoga which combines movement and meditation and focuses on breathing, mantra recitation and mental visualization, increased connectivity in an area of the brain that can be impacted by stress and is associated with memory decline. The findings were recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Led by psychiatrist Dr. Helen Lavretsky, UCLA researchers studied the effects of yoga compared to the gold-standard approach of memory enhancement training (MET) on connectivity in subregions of the hippocampus, a critical area of the brain for learning and memory. MET is derived from techniques that use verbal and visual association and practical strategies to improve memory.

“Kundalini yoga training appears to better target stress-related hippocampal connectivity, whereas MET may better target sensory-integration subregions of the hippocampus, supporting better memory reliability,” said Lavretsky, director of the Late-Life Mood, Stress, and Wellness Research Program.

“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,” she said. “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 included 22 participants who were part of a larger randomized controlled trial studying yoga’s effects on Alzheimer’s risk. The mean age among the 11 yoga participants was about 61; it was about 65  in the MET group. All had a self-reported decline in memory function during the previous year and one or more cardiovascular risk factors, which can also increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. These included plaque buildup in arteries, recent heart attack, diabetes, and treatment for high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Both the yoga and MET groups had a 60-minute, in-person training session each week for 12 weeks. The programs also included daily homework or practice sessions. The Kundalini yoga (KY) training was supported with at-home practice of another brief meditative form of yoga, Kirtan Kriya (KK). These types of yoga engage a variety of senses simultaneously and have a chanting component that may improve respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous system functions, according to previous studies.

Lavretsky and her team have previously reported that Kundalini and Kirtan Kriya yoga had beneficial effects on depression, resilience, and executive functioning in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. They also found that yoga had a more robust neuroprotective effect on right hippocampal volume – which may suggest improved memory function – than MET in older women with subjective memory decline and cardiovascular risk factors.

The new study used specialized functional MRI to establish resting-state connectivity of the hippocampus. This imaging, considered more sensitive to cognitive changes than hippocampal volumes, enabled the researchers to evaluate subregions of the hippocampus, comparing the effects of yoga versus memory training.

Based on their findings, the yoga “training may better target hippocampal subregion connectivity impacted by stress, which may aid in processing information, including facial information, into memory,” the authors said. Additionally, “the observed greater increased connectivity between anterior and posterior hippocampal subregions with KY+KK training than with MET may suggest superior long-term neuroprotective benefits in terms of vulnerable hippocampal connections critical to episodic memory with KY+KK training.”

The hippocampus must integrate information from various senses, and MET appears better than yoga in assisting in this function. “The various mnemonic strategies in MET, including verbal, visual, and spatial associative techniques, generally aim to enhance multimodal sensory integration into memory processes. Thus, MET may show superiority to KY+KK in terms of hippocampal sensory-integration important to memory,” which could support better memory reliability, the study said.

While the small study suggests these forms of yoga may be of particular benefit to women who report experiencing stress and have additional risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, the authors say future, large-scale studies that have a placebo group or control arm will be needed to clarify the beneficial effects of both yoga and MET on hippocampal connectivity and memory.

Reference: “Impact of Yoga Versus Memory Enhancement Training on Hippocampal Connectivity in Older Women at Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease” by Lisa A. Kilpatrick, Prabha Siddarth, Beatrixa Krause-Sorio, Michaela M. Milillo, Yesenia Aguilar-Faustino, Linda Ercoli, Katherine L. Narr, Dharma S. Khalsa and Helen Lavretsky, 19 July 2023, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
DOI: 10.3233/JAD-221159

The study was funded by the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

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