Brain gain for elderly yoginis

New study suggests yoga could be a way to protect against cognitive decline in old age

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 17 July 2017

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod


Scientists in Brazil have imaged elderly female yoga practitioners’ brains and found they have greater cortical thickness in the left prefrontal cortex, in brain areas associated with cognitive functions like attention and memory.

The results suggest that yoga could be a way to protect against cognitive decline in old age.

Brain training

As we age, the structure and functionality of our brains change and this often leads to cognitive decline, including impaired attention or memory. One such change in the brain involves the cerebral cortex becoming thinner, which scientists have shown is correlated with cognitive decline. So, how can we slow or reverse these changes?

Many people believe medication would be required, but the answer could lie in contemplative practices like yoga. Yoga practitioners consciously maintain postures and perform breathing exercises and meditation.

‘In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training. Like any contemplative practice, yoga has a cognitive component in which attention and concentration are important.’

Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo, Brazil

Previous studies have suggested that yoga can have greater health benefits than similar aerobic exercises, and yoga practitioners have shown improved awareness, attention and memory. Older adults with mild cognitive impairment have also shown improvements after a short yoga training programme.

But can yoga significantly shape your brain and if so, could it offset some of the changes that happen in the ageing brain? The research team wanted to see if elderly long-term yoga practitioners had any differences in terms of brain structure compared with healthy elderly people who had never practised yoga.

Studying yoginis

They recruited 21 female yoga practitioners (also known as yoginis) who had practised yoga at least twice a week for a minimum of eight years, although the group had an average of nearly 15 years of yoga experience.

The researchers compared the yoginis with another group of 21 healthy women, who had never practised yoga, meditation or any other contemplative programmes, but who were well-matched to the yoginis in terms of their age (all the participants were 60 or over) and levels of physical activity.

For more consistent results, the researchers only recruited women, and the participants completed surveys to see if there were any other factors at work that could affect brain structure, such as depression or level of formal education.

Different brain structures

The researchers scanned the participants’ brains using magnetic resonance imaging to see if there were any differences in brain structure. ‘We found greater thickness in the left prefrontal cortex in the yoginis, in brain regions associated with cognitive functions such as attention and memory’, says Rui Afonso, a researcher involved in the study.

As the groups were well-matched in terms of other factors that can change brain structure, such as education and levels of depression, yoga appears to be behind the yoginis’ different brain structure.

The results suggest that practising yoga in the long-term can change the structure of your brain and could protect against cognitive decline in old age. However, the team plan to carry out more studies to see if these brain changes result in enhanced cognitive performance in elderly yoginis.

Another possibility is that people with these brain features are more likely to be attracted to yoga. ‘We have compared experienced yoginis with non-practitioners, so we do not know if the yoginis already had these differences before they started yoga’, explains Afonso. ‘This can only be confirmed by studying people for a few years from the time they start yoga.’

Click here to read the study, which was recently published in ‘Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience’.

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