Yoga, Memory, and Alzheimer's Disease

Yoga and meditation exercises have long been practiced in some parts of our world, but they're a newer discipline for many in Western society. Scientific research is relatively young in this area as well, but studies are finding that yoga has been connected to several physical and emotional benefits. Of note, some research is also asking questions about how yoga might affect our memory and decision-making skills, and perhaps even help delay or reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease—the most common cause of dementia.

Multiple studies have been conducted to evaluate if, and how, yoga affects cognition. Researchers have found the following associations with the practice of yoga.

Group of people in yoga class
RyanJLane / iStockphoto

Improved Visuospatial Memory, Verbal Memory, Long-Term Memory and Neural Connections in the Brain

A study was published in 2016 by researchers at UCLA and included 25 participants over the age of 55 who did not have a dementia diagnosis but did have some complaints of memory problems. (Some research has found that memory complaints have been correlated with an increased risk of cognitive decline.) These 25 participants were assigned either to a control group who received cognitive training (which has been previously been associated with improved memory and brain functioning) or to the experimental group, whose members received standardized yoga training. Both the cognitive training group and the yoga group met for 60 minutes a week and had homework exercises. These interventions lasted for 12 weeks.

Prior to the start of the cognitive training or the yoga exercises, the 25 participants in the study were tested to evaluate several aspects of their cognition including their visuospatial memory, verbal memory, and long-term memoryMagnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was also used to study if, and how, the brain changed in response to the interventions in the study.

The results showed that both the yoga as well as the cognitive training groups experienced improved memory in the participants. The study also found a greater improvement in the visuospatial memory scores of those who were in the yoga group, compared to those who completed the cognitive training.

Additionally, the MRI results at the end of the 12-week program for both of the yoga group and the brain training group found improved connections in the brain's neuron networks, which correlated with the memory gains. (The neural networks in the brain help to pass communication on from one cell to the next.)

Improved Executive Functioning, Recall and Working Memory 

In 2014, a study was published that involved 118 adults with an average age of 62. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a stretching-strengthening group or a Hatha yoga group. For 8 weeks, both groups met three times a week for an hour each time. Each participant's executive functioning (which helps us with decision-making and planning), recall and working memory were measured prior to the 8-week intervention and following the conclusion of the study. Executive functioning was assessed by a test that involves multi-tasking (much like daily life requires), recall was tested using the running scan test where participants are asked to recall the last several items in a list that ends unpredictably, and working memory was evaluated by the n-back test- a task that requires recalling which block in a grid was lit up when shown a series of lights that flash on and off.

The results demonstrated that all areas of cognition measured in this study significantly improved for the participants assigned to the Hatha yoga group, while the stretching-strengthening group did not demonstrate a significant improvement.

Improved Attention, Processing Speed, Executive Functioning and Memory

In 2015, a scientific article was published by Dr. Neha Gothe, a Wayne State University and Dr. Edward Mcauley, a University of Illinois professor, both of whom have conducted multiple studies regarding the potential for cognitive benefits from yoga and other exercises. Their article consisted of a comprehensive review of research that has been conducted about yoga and cognition. Following their review of 22 different studies about yoga and cognition, they concluded that yoga typically was associated with an improvement in attention, processing speed, executive functioning and memory in those who participated.

Improved Executive Functioning and Memory

In one other study, researchers found that college-age women who participated in a yoga class experienced improved executive functioning and memory shortly after the class was conducted. Surprisingly, this benefit did not develop for those in the study who were assigned to an aerobic exercise group. This study differs from other research in that it found an immediate benefit for memory and executive functioning, as opposed to an improvement over a series of several weeks of classes.

Related Research

A study published in 2014 found improved cognition, along with other emotional health benefits, for people with dementia who engaged in mindfulness- defined as an emphasis on deeply experiencing and enjoying the present moment. This study also provided mindfulness training to the caregivers of those living with dementia and found that they enjoyed an improved mood, sleep, and quality of life, as well as experienced less depression and anxiety. While mindfulness is not the same as yoga, it shares some similarities in the field of mental discipline.

Why Might Yoga Improve Cognition?

Cognitive training—think of a workout for your brain—has been frequently connected with improved memory and a decreased risk of dementia. Yoga involves a training, or discipline, of the mind, similar to stretching and strengthening the brain's "muscles."

Additionally, yoga also requires substantial physical effort. Research has demonstrated that physical exercise of any kind, which includes even activities such as gardening and walking, has the potential to decrease the risk of dementia. Yoga certainly fits in this category of physical exercise.

Chronic stress is another area that has been connected to several health concerns, including an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Thus, since yoga has been shown to be able to decrease stress, it may also contribute to the decrease in our chances of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Finally, yoga has also been correlated with decreased blood pressure and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. In turn, these each have been researched and associated with improved brain functioning and a decreased risk of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.

Is Yoga Better Than Other Physical Exercise for Your Brain?

While there's evidence that yoga may have the potential to improve cognition, there are not conclusive results that it's the best way to exercise for better brain health.

As is often the case, more research is needed However, these studies do reinforce the finding that both physical and mental exercises are important to brain health- and yoga is an opportunity to do both at the same time.

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By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.