Yoga Improves Mental Function in Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment
As the global baby boomer population continues to age, there is a greater need for strategies to prevent or reduce cognitive decline and dementia. Emerging research suggests that a manual-based yoga program may improve memory, executive function, and mood in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Mild cognitive decline occurs in approximately 10-20% of older adults. Often seen as a normal byproduct of aging, even a small loss of mental function can be a precursor to serious dementia including Alzheimer’s disease. In recent years, a greater number of adults and researchers are turning to mind-body practices like yoga and meditation as potential alternatives to stem the flow of cognitive decline.
Reviews of the impact of Kundalini yoga, Mindfulness-based stress reduction, Vipassana meditation and tai chi with healthy and clinical samples find that mind-body practices may serve to buffer the effects of aging by improving cognitive function and mood, and lessening the experience of stress. Though promising, more high quality studies using randomized controlled designs are needed to better understand these effects.
In this study, researchers at UCLA offered either yoga or memory training to 79 adults, 55 years of age and older, with mild cognitive impairment. Individuals were randomized to either 12 weeks of Kundalini yoga (39 participants) or memory enhancement training (41 participants).
Memory, executive functioning, and mood were assessed immediately before and after the intervention, then 12 weeks later. A total of 9 participants from each group (yoga and memory training) dropped out by the end of the intervention (23% and 22% respectively)
The Kundalini yoga training program consisted of weekly, 1-hour classes per week for 12 weeks. Each class was taught by the same instructor, and included “tuning in”, a warm-up, breathing techniques (pranayama), chants and hand gestures (mudras), meditation, and rest (savasana). Participants were provided with handouts and audio meditation CDs to assist them in their home practice.
The memory enhancement training program was developed by researchers at UCLA’s Longevity Center. It includes a scripted manual for trainers, and a “compassion workbook” for participants. The program includes education about the memory, memory strategies, 20-minutes of daily home practice with activity logs, and psychoeducation. Weekly small group sessions included reviewing and turning in homework, learning and practicing new techniques, and assigning homework for the upcoming week.
Yoga and Memory Training May Improve Memory Performance
At the end of the 12-week intervention, members of the Kundalini yoga and memory training groups showed comparable improvements in logical and visual memory, both immediately following a prompt and after a delay. Only the yoga group sustained these improvements 12 weeks later, and only adults in the memory training group demonstrated significant improvements in verbal memory.
Yoga May Be Superior to Memory Training in Improving Executive Function
On the whole, the yoga group performed better than the memory group on tasks related to executive function both at the end of the 12-week intervention, and 12 weeks later. Executive function skills include planning, organizing, paying attention, switching focus, and regulating thoughts and behavior.
In terms of specific tasks, yoga group participants showed enhanced mental efficiency, and were better able to recall names following yoga training. Yoga groups also demonstrated greater reductions in depression, and increased stress resilience.
Authors of the study propose that the added benefits of yoga may be attributed to a combination of brain fitness exercises like breathing, movement, repetition of words, and visualization, which may enhance attention, awareness, and recall. The potential for yoga to reduce stress, although not explicitly measured, may have also contributed to improved mental function.
This study is notable due to its use of use of a manualized yoga protocol within a randomized controlled trial, and comparison to a standardized memory training program. Of question is whether or not these interventions are feasible and acceptable for older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Nearly one quarter of enrolled participants in the yoga and memory groups did not complete training.
Future randomized controlled trials such as this, with larger sample sizes will be needed to better understand why some adults successfully complete training and benefit from it, while others may not.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com.
Eyre HA, Siddarth P, Acevedo B, Van Dyk K, Paholpak P, et al. (2017). A randomized controlled trail of Kundalini yoga in mild cognitive impairment. International Psychogeriatrics, 29(4), 557-567.