A new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease led by Dr. Helen Lavretsky, of UCLA's Department of Psychiatry, concluded that older adults' risk of mild cognitive impairment may be significantly reduced through completion of a 3-month yoga and meditation course.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is often a precursor for development of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, and is characterized by noticeable changes in cognitive function, such as the development of memory and thinking problems.
Though these changes do not typically interfere with a person's independence and day-to-day activities, symptoms can worsen with time, eventually increasing the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Long-term studies indicate that between 10-20 percent of adults aged 65 and older are likely to develop MCI, according to the Alzheimer's Association,. It is also estimated that, of these adults, around 6-15 percent develop dementia each year.
Though currently there are no approved medications treatments for MCI, Dr. Lavretsky and colleagues are exploring how practicing yoga and meditation may be equally effective - if not better - for preserving cognitive function.
Yoga vs. Memory Enhancement Training
For the study, researchers recruited 25 participants aged 55 and older.
Fourteen of the participants took part in a 1-hour Kundalini yoga class once a week and practiced Kirtan Kriya meditation for 20 minutes every day, for a 12 week period.
Referred to as the "yoga of awareness”, Kundalini yoga incorporates meditation, chanting, and breathing techniques. Kirtan Kriya meditation involves chanting, light visualization, and hand movements.
“This form of meditation has been practiced in India for hundreds of years as a way to maintain cognitive function in older adults,” Dr. Lavretsky noted.
The 11 remaining participants - through activities such as crossword puzzles or computer games - engaged in 1 hour of memory enhancement training once a week for 12 weeks. In addition to memory games, they spent 20 minutes a day completing memory exercises.
Each of the 25 participants completed memory tests and underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the beginning and end of the 12-week study period, enabling researchers to assess a "before and after" perspective of the group’s cognitive function and brain activity.
Yoga-Meditation Results in Greater Visual-Spatial Memory Improvements
Both groups indicated improvements in verbal memory skills at the end of the 12 weeks, which measured participants’ ability to remember lists of words and names. However, the participants who practiced yoga and meditation demonstrated an even greater improvements in visual-spatial memory skills, which researchers assessed to measure their ability to navigate and remember locations, as compared to the participants who engaged only in memory enhancement training.
Unsurprisingly, when it came to levels of anxiety and depression (as well as coping skills and stress resilience) the yoga-meditation group also fared better when compared to the memory enhancement training group.
"When you have memory loss, you can get quite anxious about that and it can lead to depression," notes Dr. Lavretsky.
Verbal memory and visual-spatial memory were found to be correlated with changes in brain connectivity, according to researchers.
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