A form of yoga that focuses on breathing, meditation, and mental visualisation appeared beneficial for older women who had risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and concerns about episodes of memory decline, claimed a small study.
Using a type of MRI that measures activity in regions and subregions of the brain, researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that Kundalini yoga increases activity in a region of the brain impacted by stress and associated with memory decline.
In the study, appearing early online in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 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 psychiatrist Dr. Helen Lavretsky, director of the Late-Life Mood, Stress, and Wellness Research Programme at UCLA.
The study included 22 participants who were part of a larger randomised controlled trial studying yoga’s effects on Alzheimer’s risk. 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 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 Kundalini yoga training was supported with at-home practice of another brief meditative form of yoga Kirtan Kriya.
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.
“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,” Lavretsky 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.”
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.