the effect of yoga on alzheimer's

Clarity within the Haze: The Benefits of Yoga and Meditation for Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes dementia. It is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about two-thirds of cases in older people. Currently around 850,000 people in the UK are affected by dementia. The majority of people who develop the disease are over the age of 65. Dementia can affect how people feel, act and function. It can also affect their physical health.

Symptoms usually include the gradual loss of memory and communication skills, and a decline in the ability to think and reason clearly. People may be less able to carry out ordinary daily activities and may need support for everyday tasks.

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 dysregulation, 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 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 in May 2016, 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.

In another research study, also published in May 2016 (Innes et al., 2016), the increasing rates of cognitive decline and dementia in our aging population in the West was strongly highlighted. Researchers described how effective, low-cost, and low side-effect interventions for the treatment and prevention of cognitive decline are urgently needed. This study was 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, have much to offer people experiencing Alzheimer’s and other dementias. They may 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.

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 convey a powerful message of compassion and valued self-worth.

The Yoga in Healthcare Alliance (YiHA) is a social enterprise that is supporting and enabling the National Health Service to both train healthcare professionals in therapeutic yoga techniques and make yoga available to them directly. It also aims to lobby, raise awareness and provide support for yoga’s infusion into the NHS. In February 2019 (15th-17th) the first Yoga in Healthcare Alliance Conference will take place at Westminster University in London.

The aim is to discuss how we can collaboratively incorporate yoga into healthcare, share success stories, raise the profile of yoga in healthcare, and effectively move towards a future where yoga is offered on prescription. Specific benefits of yoga for dementia will be explored including keynotes and workshops from specialists in this area.


Bredesen, D., Easton, M (2014). Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program. Aging, 6(9).

Khoo, Y, van Schaik, P. &, McKenna, J. (2014). The Happy Antics programme: Holistic exercise for people with dementia. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 4, 553- 558.

Innes, S., Selfe, T., Khalsa, D. &, Kandati, S. (2016). Effects of Meditation versus Music Listening on Perceived Stress, Mood, Sleep, and Quality of Life in Adults with Early Memory Loss: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, due for release on 8th April 2016.

Nicole Schnackenberg

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