Yoga and Meditation Keep Your Brain Sharp and Resilient New Study Shows
Can yoga and meditation can help stave off cognitive decline and increase our brain’s efficiency and resilience? This appears to be the implications from a study recently published in Frontiers in Aging Neuorscience, which found that long-term yoga practitioners in particular exhibited higher and more resilient brain functioning than similarly aged peers.
In the study, an international team of researchers examined the brain functioning of 47 healthy middle-aged yoga and meditation practitioners and normal controls to see whether the groups differed in fluid intelligence, resilience, function and efficiency. Participants included 16 yoga practitioners (mean age 49.4 years, SD =7.8), 16 meditators (mean age 54.1 years, SD =8.2), and 15 controls (mean age 52.9 years, SD =9.8). Groups were matched for age, gender, education, race and handedness.
The yoga practitioners included in the study were trained in the Kripalu tradition, and they had an average of 13,534 (SD = 9,950) hours of yoga experience. Individuals in the meditation group were trained in the Insight Meditation tradition; they had an average of 7,458 (SD = 5,734) hours of meditation practice. Controls had no experience with either yoga or meditation.
Members of each group were asked to complete a number of behavioral measures of fluid and verbal intelligence, cognitive functioning and mindfulness. Fluid intelligence encompasses skills such as logical thinking, problem solving, and the capacity to identify patterns and relationships when solving novel problems. Participants also reported on their weekly physical activity and how often they engaged in cognitive activities like reading, writing, solving puzzles, and playing card and board games. Images of their brains were then obtained using an MRI scanner.
Yoga Associated With Higher Brain Functioning
Overall, results revealed that yoga practitioners and meditators had a lower rate of age-related decline of fluid intelligence compared to normal controls. This reduced decline was most pronounced for yoga practitioners, and likely responsible for greater fluid intelligence observed in yoga practitioners as well.
Yoga practitioners also demonstrated significantly greater global efficiency, network integration and “small worldness” than control group members. Small worldness refers to networks, or clusters of connections between neighboring brain nodes. These networks are associated with brain efficiency and dynamic complexity. Interestingly, there was no significant difference between meditators and the control group on this measure.
Together these findings suggest that yoga practitioners tend to have higher levels of brain network integration and efficiency compared to controls. While this was also true for meditators, the effects were not as strong as those in the yoga group.
Yoga Linked to More Resilient Brain Functioning
Researchers also tested the resilience of participants’ brains by simulating damage to these functional networks by altering patterns of connectivity between brain nodes. They discovered that yoga practitioners have more resilient networks when compared meditators and control group members.
Lastly, investigators examined whether a measure of mindfulness would be related to greater fluid intelligence and network resilience. As anticipated, yoga and meditation practitioners had higher mindfulness scores than controls. Levels of mindfulness were significantly correlated with fluid intelligence, network resilience, global efficiency and network integration. This suggests that mindfulness is associated with greater fluid intelligence and more integrated and resilient brain networks.
Taken as a whole, results of this study suggest that both yoga and meditation are effective in maintaining higher levels of brain performance in middle-aged adults. This study is important as it moves the field beyond knowledge of the structural effects of these practices on brain development to a greater understanding of the functional significance of these differences.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at email@example.com or see http://isaeaorg.wix.com/isaea and http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.