Yoga Improves Brain Functioning in Older Adults, Study Suggests

Updated: 
January 06, 2018

Practicing yoga as little as three times a week can help improve brain functioning in older adults, a new study suggests. The study is one of the first to offer evidence that yoga might help counteract the cognitive decline otherwise often seen as part of the aging process.

The study included 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79, who were randomly divided into a group that attended hatha yoga classes three times a week, and a group that participated in stretching and toning exercises instead.

After eight weeks, the yoga group performed better on cognitive tests than it had before the start of yoga classes. The yoga group showed improved ability to recall information, switch tasks, and they exhibited greater mental flexibility. In contrast, the group who did stretching and toning exercises saw no change in cognitive performance over time. Results could not be explained by differences in age, gender, social status or other similar factors between the two groups.

Since stretching and toning exercises on the surface would appear to be similar to a yoga practice, wherein lies the difference? Researchers theorize that it may be due to the mindful focus on one's body, mind and breath that is part of a yoga practice.

"Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate," says Neha Gothe, a professor at Wayne State University, who led the study with University of Illinois professor Edward McAuley, in a press release. "It is possible that this focus on one's body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention."

In addition, the researchers note, yoga may also help improve brain function indirectly by reducing anxiety, depression and stress, which can have a negative effect on cognitive performance. The effects of yoga on mental stress, anxiety, and depression have been well documented in previous studies.

Part of the improved brain functioning showed up as significant improvement in working memory capacity, a particular positive for an age group otherwise characterized by declines in memory functions. The study offers hope that yoga may improve quality of life as you get older, and slow the decline in cognitive function that often accompanies the aging process.

Researchers emphasized that the results of the new study are only preliminary and that more research is needed.