Do yoga to Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Updated on January 19th, 2021
Yoga and Alzheimer's

Meditation and yoga exercises have long been practiced in some parts of the globe, but they’re a newer discipline for many western nations. Scientific evidence is relatively young in this area, but studies find that yoga has been linked to several emotional and physical benefits.

Of note, few studies are also asking questions about how yoga might affect our decision-making and memory skills and perhaps even help reduce or delay the risk of Alzheimer’s disease—the most common cause of dementia.

Numerous studies have been undertaken to evaluate if and how yoga affects cognition [1]. Researchers have found the following associations with the practice of yoga.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive kind of dementia. Dementia is a broader word for conditions caused by brain illnesses or injuries that negatively affect thinking, memory, and behavior. These changes interfere with everyday living.

Alzheimer’s condition accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Most individuals with the condition get a diagnosis after age 65. If it’s diagnosed before then, it’s usually referred to as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Though there is no complete cure for Alzheimer’s, treatments can delay the disease’s progression. 

[Read: Tips to Ward Off Dementia and Alzheimer’s]

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

All of us have episodes of forgetfulness once in a while. But individuals with Alzheimer’s disease display certain ongoing symptoms and behaviors that worsen over time. These can include:

  • the trouble with routine tasks, such as using a microwave
  • memory loss affecting daily activities, such as an ability to keep appointments
  • challenges with problem-solving
  • the trouble with writing or speech 
  • becoming disoriented about places or times 
  • decreased personal hygiene
  • decreased judgment
  • personality and mood changes
  • withdrawal from family, friends,  and community

Yoga & Alzheimer’s

What Does Yoga for Patients With Alzheimer’s Involve?

Most yoga for people with Alzheimer’s involves gentle movements performed in an easy, slow manner. Sessions tend to be briefer than a typical yoga session, generally lasting anywhere from ten to thirty minutes [2]. 

Sequences can be tailored to an individual’s motor skills and physical capabilities. Trainers never force movements, and participants are motivated to do what they can. This can help a person with Alzheimer’s feel a sense of empowerment and self-determination. 

For those with severe or moderate dementia, or individuals who may have issues with balance or are unable to sit on the mat or floor, chair yoga may be a great option.

In chair yoga, you either stand using the chair as support or do the poses from a seated position. Basic yoga poses, such as Prayer pose, Mountain pose, or any of the several Warrior poses, are adapted to do them from a seated position for chair yoga [3].

Standing or seated, you can still benefit from the increased flexibility of the hips, improved posture, and strengthening of ankles, legs, and feet. Yoga classes adapted for people with Alzheimer’s often stress the mindfulness teachings of yoga and the physical movements.

[Read: Tips to Improve Memory]

Can Yoga Improve Brain Function?

Physical activity is not only crucial for overall wellness, but it’s linked with a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Multiple studies, such as one published in January 2018 in the JAGS (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society), have indicated that exercise, specific aerobic exercise, can delay the decline in cognitive function that happens in people who are at risk of or who have Alzheimer’s disease.

While it is not completely understood how exercise lessens dementia risk, experts believe that exercise leads to improved vascular health and enhanced brain health. It’s believed that exercise directly benefits brain cells by increasing oxygen and blood flow in the brain.

While most yoga, specifically the gentle forms geared toward individuals with Alzheimer’s, is not intense enough to be regarded as an aerobic exercise, some evidence may still offer similar cognitive benefits.

A recent research review (December 2018), published in the IJERPH (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health), concluded that body-mind exercise (such as tai chi and yoga) might be an effective and safe intervention for improving cognitive function among individuals aged sixty years or older.

Four of the clinical trials included in the meta-analysis particularly involved yoga interventions.

One included research, published in January 2017 in the JACM (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine), noted that yoga practice that involves breathing, postures, and meditative exercises lead to improved attention and information processing (time needed to perform a task) abilities.

However, the research authors note that further research is required to make a more convincing statement.

Another research, published in 2019 in the journal Brain Plasticity, found proof that yoga enhances many of the same brain functions and structures that benefit from aerobic exercise.

Experts reviewed eleven studies and noted that yoga appears to have a positive effect on critical places of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation and information processing.

For instance, practicing yoga appears to spike the hippocampus volume; a part of the brain believed to shrink with age. The hippocampus is also the part that is initially affected in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The research authors suspect that reducing stress and enhancing emotional regulation is key to yoga’s beneficial effects on the brain.

While researchers don’t yet completely understand the mechanisms, these findings indicate that “Alzheimer’s yoga” may be a brain-healthy alternative form of physical activity for senior adults, particularly those who may have symptoms or disabilities that prevent them from performing more vigorous forms of exercise.

Other Alzheimer’s treatments

Apart from medication, lifestyle changes can help you manage your condition. For instance, your physician might develop strategies to help you or your loved one:

  • stay calm
  • limit confusion
  • focus on tasks
  • get enough rest every day
  • avoid confrontation

Few individuals believe that vitamin E can help prevent a decline in mental abilities, but studies indicate that more research is required. Be sure to ask your medical practitioner before taking vitamin E or any other supplements. It may interfere with a few of the medications used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Apart from lifestyle changes, there are numerous alternative options you can ask your physician about. Read more about alternative Alzheimer’s treatments.

Bottom Line

Alzheimer’s is a complicated condition in which there are several unknowns. What is known is that the diseases worsen over time, but treatment can improve your quality of life by delaying symptoms. 

If you think a loved one or you may have Alzheimer’s, your initial step is to talk with your physician. They can help discuss what you can expect, make a diagnosis, and help connect you with support and services. If you’re keen, they can also give you information about taking part in clinical trials.

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