Yoga and meditation may reduce dementia risk

A study led by researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles concludes that completing a three-month yoga and meditation course may reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in older adults. MCI is a condition in which people have more significant memory or thinking problems than are normally seen in people of their age.

The study, whose findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, involved 25 people age 55 and older who participated in various activities over a 12-week period. Eleven of the participants engaged in the types of mentally-stimulating activities that are commonly recommended to reduce the risk of dementia, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku and computer games. They also spent 20 minutes daily completing memory exercises.

The other fourteen participants took part in a weekly hatha yoga class (physical postures) and practiced Kirtan Kriya meditation for 20 minutes each day; this type of meditation involves a combination of hand movements, called mudras, chanting and visualization. Lead study author Dr. Helen Lavretsky of UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry says Kirtan Kriya meditation has been practiced in India for hundreds of years as a way to maintain cognitive function in older adults.

Dr. S. James Shafer, a Vero Beach neurologist, says, “This is a small study, so we need to be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions, but the results fall in line with other research that has been done.”

He says that meditation and yoga stimulate neural pathways and can help those with neurological issues maintain or improve mental function. “The brain is not a muscle,” Dr. Shafer says, “but it can react like one – it gets stronger the more we use it.”

Mild cognitive impairment can be caused by cerebrovascular disease, which affects vessels that supply the brain with blood.

Certain medications can cause MCI, too, including drugs that contain “anti-cholinergic” properties; this property inhibits the activity of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which plays a critical role in memory and cognitive function.

While drugs that are “officially” anti-cholinergic are mostly used as an anti-spasmodics, there are many other medications that may also have anti-cholinergic effects, including antihistamines, acid blockers and antidepressants. Some of these are sold over the counter, so it’s good for people concerned about MCI to check with their doctor or pharmacist before beginning to take any new medication.

At the beginning and end of the UCLA yoga study, the participants completed memory tests and underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allowed the research team to assess their cognitive function and brain activity.

Both groups showed improvement in their ability to remember names and lists of words, but the yoga and meditation group demonstrated greater improvement in visual-spatial memory skills – the ability to navigate and remember locations – than did the group which participated in puzzles, games and memory exercises.

The study resulted in another significant finding: The yoga and meditation group had lower levels of anxiety and depression than the other group, as well as better coping skills and stress resilience. The team suggests this may be because yoga and meditation increase the levels of a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor” (BDNF). BDNF boosts new connections between brain cells and is responsible for the survival of existing brain cell connections.

UCLA’s Dr. Lavretsky says “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.”

Vero’s Dr. Shafer emphasizes the importance of further research into cerebral wellness, which refers to the ability to learn, concentrate, remember, plan and maintain a clear and active mind. “People are living longer, in part because of the treatments we now have for cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions,” he says. “The brain is where we live, but it remains a largely unknown, unmapped territory.”

Dr. Shafer’s practice is part of Vero Orthopaedics and Vero Neurology, 1155 35th Lane, #100; 772-569-7039.

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