A new pilot study suggests yoga and meditation are more effective than memory enhancement exercises for managing mild cognitive impairment.
Mild cognitive impairment is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) led team of neuroscientists found that a three-month course of yoga and meditation practice helped minimize cognitive and emotional problems. In addition, yoga and meditation were found to be more effective than the memory enhancement exercises — often 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 Dr. Helen Lavretsky, the study’s senior author and a professor in residence in UCLA’s department of psychiatry.
People with mild cognitive impairment are two and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The study, which appears in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, is the first to compare outcomes from yoga and meditation with those from memory training. Memory training traditionally includes activities ranging from crossword puzzles to commercially available computer programs.
The study of 25 participants, all over the age of 55, measured changes not just in behavior but also in brain activity.
“Historically and anecdotally, yoga has been thought to be beneficial in aging well, but this is the scientific demonstration of that benefit,” said Dr. Harris Eyre, the study’s lead author.
“We’re converting historical wisdom into the high level of evidence required for doctors to recommend therapy to their patients.”
Lavretsky and Eyre studied participants who had reported issues with their memory, such as tendencies to forget names, faces or appointments or to misplace things. Subjects underwent memory tests and brain scans at the beginning and end of the study.
Eleven participants received 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 in verbal memory skills, which come into play for remembering names and lists of words.
However, those who had practiced yoga and meditation had better improvements than the other subjects in visual-spatial memory skills. These skills come into play when recalling locations and navigating while walking or driving.
The yoga-meditation group also had better results in terms of reducing depression and anxiety and improving coping skills and resilience to stress. That’s important because coming to terms with cognitive impairment can be emotionally difficult.
“When you have memory loss, you can get quite anxious about that and it can lead to depression,” said Lavretsky.
The researchers report that the participants’ outward improvements in memory corresponded with perceptible changes in their brain activity.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they showed that subjects in both groups had changes in their brain connectivity, but the changes among the yoga group were statistically significant, whereas the changes in the memory group were not.
The researchers attribute the positive “brain fitness” effects of mindful exercise to several factors. These include the ability to reduce stress and inflammation, improve mood and resilience, and enhance production of brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor, or BDNF.
BDNF is a protein that stimulates connections between neurons and facilitates telomerase activity, a process that replaces lost or damaged genetic material.
“If you or your relatives are trying to improve your memory or offset the risk for developing memory loss or dementia, a regular practice of yoga and meditation could be a simple, safe and low-cost solution to improving your brain fitness,” Lavretsky said.