Yoga, meditation improve brain fitness: study

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Helen Lavretsky, M.D.
Helen Lavretsky, M.D.

Yoga and meditation can offer a simple, safe and low-cost solution to improving brain fitness, according to research published May 10 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

The two approaches, when combined, can help minimize the cognitive and emotional issues that often precede a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, the researchers found. In fact, yoga combined with meditation was found to be even more effective than the memory-enhancement exercises that have been considered the gold standard for managing mild cognitive impairment.

“Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided a broader benefit than memory training because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills,” said Helen Lavretsky, M.D., the study's senior author and a professor in residence in the University of California, Los Angeles' Department of Psychiatry.

The researchers attribute the positive “brain fitness” effects of mindful exercise to several factors, including its abilities to reduce stress and inflammation, improve mood and resilience, and enhance production of brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor, a protein the stimulates connections between neurons and kick-starts telomerase activity, a process that replaces lost or damaged genetic material.

The study of 25 participants, all aged more than 55 years, measured changes not just in behavior but also in brain activity.

Lavretsky and coauthors studied participants who had reported issues with their memory, such as tendencies to forget names, faces or appointments or to misplace items. Participants underwent memory tests and brain scans at the beginning and end of the study.

Eleven participants underwent one hour a week of memory enhancement training and spent 20 minutes a day performing memory exercises — verbal and visual association and other practical strategies for improving memory, based on research-backed techniques. The other 14 participants took a one-hour class once a week in Kundalini yoga and practiced 20 Kirtan Kriya meditation at home for 20 minutes each day. Kirtan Kriya, which involves chanting, hand movements and visualization of light, has been practiced for hundreds of years in India as a way to prevent cognitive decline in older adults, Lavretsky said.

After 12 weeks, the researchers saw similar improvements among participants in both groups regarding the verbal memory skills, which are used to help people remember names and lists of words. Those who had practiced yoga and meditation, however, saw more improvement than the other subjects in visual-spatial memory skills, which are used to recall locations and to navigate while walking or driving.

The yoga-meditation group also saw better results in terms of reducing depression and anxiety and improving coping skills and resilience to stress.

Participants' outward improvements in memory corresponded with perceptible changes in their brain activity measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The study was funded by the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation.

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