Yoga Benefits Women at Risk of Alzheimer's, Study Says

Kundalini yoga — a variety of yoga that focuses more on meditation and breathing than physical postures — offers cognitive benefits to postmenopausal women at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a new study has found.

Kundalini yoga provides several cognitive and memory benefits to older women who are at risk of Alzheimer’s, including restoring neural pathways, preventing brain matter decline, and reversing biomarkers associated with aging and inflammation, according to new research.

The study, published in Translational Psychiatry, found that yoga is more effective at providing these benefits than traditional memory enhancement training.

“That is what yoga is good for — to reduce stress, to improve brain health, subjective memory performance and reduce inflammation and improve neuroplasticity,” said lead study author and UCLA Health psychiatrist Dr. Helen Lavretsky, of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in a news release.

Since women have about twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to men, researchers at UCLA have been conducting a series of studies comparing yoga to traditional memory exercises in an attempt to determine which one has the greatest impact on slowing cognitive decline among women.

Of the 6.2 million people with Alzheimer's disease who are age 65 or older in the United States, almost two-thirds are women, according to Harvard Health, largely because women live longer than men.

To conduct this study, researchers split a cohort of postmenopausal women aged 50 and older with self-reported memory issues and cerebrovascular risk factors into two groups: one that did weekly Kundalini yoga sessions for 12 weeks and one that instead participated in weekly memory enhancement training. A total of 63 participants completed the entire study.

After the first 12 weeks, the researchers assessed the participant’s cognition and subjective memory, and they assessed these factors a second time after 24 weeks. They took blood samples from participants to test for gene expression of aging markers and for molecules associated with inflammation.

A small subset of patients were also examined by MRI at the beginning and then again after 12 weeks.

The results showed that participants in the yoga group experienced improvements that the other group did not, including a reduction in subjective memory complaints, prevention of brain matter declines, increased connectivity in the hippocampus which is crucial for long-term memory consolidation and retrieval, and improvement in the peripheral cytokines and gene expression of anti-inflammatory and anti-aging molecules.

Participants in the memory enhancement training group also saw improvements, though mainly when it came to long-term memory.

The researchers say more research is needed on the subject, but both practices are ultimately helpful when it comes to improving cognition and memory.

“Ideally, people should do both because they do train different parts of the brain and have different overall health effects,” Lavretsky said. “Yoga has this anti-inflammatory, stress-reducing, anti-aging neuroplastic brain effect which would be complementary to memory training.”  

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