Yoga is a practice and science of connection. Yoga is shown to have positive effects on the mind (cognition), body (physical), and soul (emotional) that can greatly benefit all of us including people living with dementia.
The brain is an adaptable organ that is continually creating new pathways, or neural connections, as it encounters new experiences. Research encourages exercises to challenge the brain and create new pathways, known as cognitive training. These exercises can be especially important during cognitive change as they are frequently connected with improved memory and decreased risk of dementia. Because it involves discipline and training of the mind, yoga is a great form of cognitive training. Yoga engages different parts of the brain based on varying components of the practice: breathing, movement, postures, and concentration.
Beyond improving brain function, the practice of yoga doesn’t require any memory. Instead, it is about focusing on the present. Yoga for people living with dementia offers freedom to be in the moment without pressures to remember facts or to meet anyone’s expectations.
The mindfulness component of yoga also has great benefits for people living with dementia. Recent studies have shown that adults with cognitive change who practice mindfulness show less atrophy (shrinking) in the hippocampus, a brain region commonly altered in people living with Alzheimer’s. Further, the study concluded that meditators have greater neural connectivity compared to people who do not meditate.
Besides just exercising the brain, yoga requires significant physical effort. Research shows that exercise of any kind is beneficial to brain function. Particularly for people living with dementia, regular exercise has been shown to improve cognition, posture, and fine motor skills.
Because of its key components of focusing on breathing and holding poses, yoga has several added benefits. The practice can:
- Promote mobility and flexibility
- Increase oxygen intake and lung capacity
- Strengthen the core for greater stability and balance
Classes designed specifically for people living with physical and cognitive change can help eliminate barriers that make other exercises inaccessible. Pose modifications (such as chair yoga), appropriate pacing, and creative communication can help bridge physical gaps and cognitive differences. Yoga is a personal practice. Find pose expressions that make you feel comfortable.
It is no secret that stress affects overall well-being. Research has shown that stress and its associated hormones can affect brain structures that are important for both memory and cognition. Further, chronic stress is associated with inflammation throughout the body, particularly in the brain and nervous system. Studies show that this inflammation has been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Because yoga has been proven to reduce stress, it can help slow the progression of cognitive and physical changes. Not only can yoga help reduce stress hormones and inflammatory factors, but we can learn to cope with stress through yoga. Additionally, stress reduction can aid in a healthy immune response to help fight illnesses.
By integrating mindfulness into their practice, yoga can promote calmness for people living with dementia. Bhastrika Pranayama, a breathing exercise, can also be incorporated into yoga. The practice has been shown to improve blood circulation, concentration, and relax the mind and body.
By practicing with a group or with a care-partner, yoga can help people living with dementia feel less isolated and lonely. People living with dementia can use their practice as an opportunity to engage with the present and with others experiencing similar changes. Overall, practicing yoga can help all partners in care feel happier and find peace on their journey with dementia. We have also found through personal experience that when teaching care-partners to take a break by breathing ten cleansing breaths, their loved ones followed suit and both were relieved of stress.
Yoga and its Effect on Aging
While there is no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s, yoga can improve the prognosis. There continues to be further research on the topic and the possibility that a regular yoga practice can reverse the signs of memory loss.
If you or your loved ones are interested in improving your memory or fighting memory loss, consider a regular yoga practice. Yoga and meditation are simple and safe solutions to improve brain fitness, strengthen the body, and lower stress.