Alzheimer’s UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, launched Yoga for Alzheimer’s early last year (2016), an initiative encouraging people to get into their favourite yoga positions while raising money to help find treatments for dementia, which affects 850,000 people nationwide.
Indeed, the benefits of yoga and meditation for Alzheimer’s and dementia are multiple and far-reaching. Whilst there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, research suggests that yoga and meditation may play a role in prevention and improve symptoms and quality of life for patients and their caregivers.
In 2014, the first study to suggest that memory loss may be reversed was conducted by Dr. Dale Bredesen of the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. In this small, novel study, nine out of the ten participants displayed subjective and objective improvement in their memories within three to six months of participating in a 36-point therapeutic program, which included diet changes and exercise.
In another small British study conducted in the same year, a holistic program including yoga and meditation was shown to ease the burden for people with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementias and their caregivers.
“This is an activity that caregivers and patients can do together” said study lead author Yvonne J-Lyn Khoo, a researcher with the Health and Social Care Institute at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, U.K. “Because everyone is doing the program together, caregivers have peace of mind to at least allow themselves to ‘let go’.”
The study, which received assistance from the U.K. Alzheimer’s Society, was published recently in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.
Yoga and meditation may be so efficacious for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia as they engage different parts of the brain based on the various components of the practice, which commonly includes pranayama, asana, chanting, and different forms of concentration. Each of these facets can help the brain to form new connections through the stimulation of neuroplasticity.
Yoga has also been found repeatedly by multiple studies to soothe and diminish stress, which has been shown to be a strong correlate of Alzheimer’s both for sufferers and their caregivers. Such stress is associated with inflammation in the body and central nervous system, hormone dis-regulation, sympathetic nervous system over-arousal and compromised quality of life. Yoga can reduce stress and inflammatory factors in people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers and help a person to cope more effectively with the body’s stress response.
Meditation has also been shown to improve memory and reduce cognitive decline; adults with mild cognitive impairment who practiced mindfulness, for example, have demonstrated less atrophy in the hippocampus than those who did not meditate. Furthermore, caregivers who practice yoga and are, therefore, less stressed themselves are in a better position to provide optimum care to those they love.
In a study released just this month, the effects of meditation versus listening to music on perceived stress, mood, sleep, and quality of life in adults with early memory loss was studied in the form of a pilot randomised-controlled trial. The effects of two 12-week relaxation programs were assessed within this trial, namely Kirtan Kriya Meditation (KK) and listening to relaxing music. Sixty people were randomised to either group and asked to practice for 12 minutes daily for 12 weeks over the course of three months.
Pleasingly, 53 participants (88%) completed the study with participants in both groups showing significant improvements at 12 weeks in psychological wellbeing and in multiple domains of mood and sleep quality. Those assigned to the meditation intervention showed greater gains in perceived stress, mood, psychological wellbeing and quality of life-mental health measures relative to the music intervention.
Excitingly, the write-up of another research study relevant to this area was released just this week. It mentions the increasing rates of cognitive decline and dementia in our aging population in the West. Thus, researchers describe how effective, low-cost, and low side-effect interventions for the treatment and prevention of cognitive decline are urgently needed.
This study is the first to investigate the effects of Kundalini yoga on mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Participants with an average age of over 55 with MCI were randomised to either a 12-week Kundalini intervention or memory enhancement training (MET). Cognitive (i.e. memory and executive functioning) and mood (i.e. depression, apathy, and resilience) assessments were administered at baseline, 12 weeks and 24 weeks.
Excitingly, the Kundalini group showed short- and long-term improvements in executive functioning as compared to the MET group, and broader effects on depressed mood and resilience
Yoga and meditation, therefore, may have much to offer people experiencing Alzheimer’s and other dementias and also provide many benefits for their caregivers. In a society which places such value on speed and productivity, the aging population are often marginalised with their self-worth being woefully forgotten. People with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are often undervalued and marginalised to an even greater degree.
Bringing yoga and meditation to this population is a much-needed and valuable gift which can provide not only stress relief, improved memory, reduced cognitive decline, diminished depression and soothed hyper-arousal but also covey a powerful message of compassion and valued self-worth.