Kundalini yoga bolsters cognitive health among older women at risk of Alzheimer’s disease

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A new study from UCLA Health has illuminated the benefits of Kundalini yoga for older women at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The study, published in Translational Psychiatry, reveals that Kundalini yoga not only bolsters cognition and memory but also rejuvenates neural pathways, curtails the decline of brain matter, and reverses biomarkers associated with aging and inflammation.

These outcomes were not observed in a comparison group who received standard memory training exercises. This research represents a significant leap forward in our understanding of how holistic practices can counteract the risks associated with Alzheimer’s, particularly among women.

Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating neurodegenerative condition that progressively erodes memory and cognitive functions. With no effective treatments to slow its progression, the focus has shifted towards prevention, especially in its early stages. Women, interestingly, are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared to men, a disparity attributed to factors such as longer life expectancy, hormonal changes during menopause, and genetics.

Kundalini yoga, a mind-body exercise integrating physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation, has emerged as a promising intervention. Its holistic approach aims to harmonize physiological and cognitive processes, making it a suitable candidate for enhancing cognitive health and aging gracefully. This led Helen Lavretsky and her team at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior to explore Kundalini yoga’s potential in early prevention of cognitive decline among postmenopausal women at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Participants were recruited from a pool of women utilizing the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Hospital’s services and through community outreach, with 79 individuals ultimately enrolling in the study. These women were at least 50 years old, postmenopausal, and self-reported subjective cognitive decline, alongside having one or more cardiovascular risk factors. They were then randomly assigned to one of two intervention groups: Kundalini yoga or memory enhancement training.

The Kundalini yoga group engaged in weekly, 60-minute sessions led by certified instructors for a duration of 12 weeks. These sessions comprised a series of exercises, including tuning in, warm-up, breathing techniques (Pranayama), Kirtan Kriya meditation, and a final resting pose, complemented by daily home practices.

The memory training group, in contrast, attended weekly group classes focused on teaching memory strategies, also for 12 weeks. This program emphasized verbal and visual association techniques, organizational strategies, and the development of memory habits, supported by homework assignments to reinforce learning.

The study employed a comprehensive suite of assessments to evaluate cognitive functions, subjective memory, mood, resilience, and quality of life at baseline, 12 weeks, and 24 weeks. Cognitive performance was measured using tests that assessed domains such as delayed recall and executive functioning. Subjective memory was evaluated through the Memory Functioning Questionnaire, while additional scales and inventories were used to assess secondary outcomes like depression, anxiety, stress, and health-related quality of life.

Blood samples were also taken to test for gene expression of aging markers and for molecules associated with inflammation, which are contributing factors to Alzheimer’s disease. A handful of patients were also assessed with MRIs to study changes in brain matter.

The researchers found that participants who engaged in Kundalini yoga experienced significant cognitive and neurobiological improvements, which were not observed in the comparison group that received standard memory enhancement training.

One of the key outcomes was the improvement in memory performance and subjective memory measures among the Kundalini yoga participants. These individuals reported a notable enhancement in the seriousness of forgetting, indicating a perceived improvement in their memory function. This finding is particularly significant as it suggests that Kundalini yoga could offer a meaningful intervention for individuals experiencing subjective cognitive decline, a precursor to more severe cognitive impairments.

However, it’s important to note that while Kundalini yoga participants saw improvements in subjective memory, they also experienced a reduction in delayed recall capabilities over the 24-week period, a finding not observed in the memory training group.

In addition to cognitive outcomes, the researchers found that Kundalini yoga was associated with the reversal of aging and inflammation-associated gene expression signatures. This suggests that the practice not only impacts cognitive functions directly but may also influence broader biological processes related to aging and neurodegeneration. Such findings are crucial for understanding how lifestyle interventions like yoga can mitigate the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease and promote healthy brain aging.

“That is what yoga is good for — to reduce stress, to improve brain health, subjective memory performance and reduce inflammation and improve neuroplasticity,” Lavretsky said.

Moreover, the study highlighted the tolerability and feasibility of Kundalini yoga as an intervention for this population. The yoga group demonstrated high levels of adherence and minimal adverse effects, reinforcing the practice’s potential as a safe and effective strategy for enhancing cognitive health among older adults at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

But no changes were observed in anxiety, depression, stress, or resilience among participants engaging in either Kundalini yoga or memory training exercises. Lavretsky suggested that the initial mental well-being of the participants could be a key factor behind this observation. Given that the study population was relatively healthy with no significant depression or anxiety at baseline, it stands to reason that the interventions might not lead to substantial improvements in these areas simply because there was less room for improvement.

Despite these promising findings, the researchers also acknowledged several limitations, including the modest sample size and the study’s relatively short duration. These factors may limit the generalizability of the results and the ability to draw definitive conclusions about the long-term effects of Kundalini yoga on cognitive health and Alzheimer’s prevention. Additionally, the study did not include a usual care control group, which could have provided a baseline for comparing the natural progression of cognitive decline in this population.

Lavretsky added that combining yoga and memory training could provide more comprehensive benefits to the cognition of older women. “Ideally, people should do both because they do train different parts of the brain and have different overall health effects,” she said. “Yoga has this anti-inflammatory, stress-reducing, anti-aging neuroplastic brain effect which would be complimentary to memory training.”

The study, “Cognitive and immunological effects of yoga compared to memory training in older women at risk for alzheimer’s disease,” was authored by Adrienne Grzenda, Prabha Siddarth, Michaela M. Milillo, Yesenia Aguilar-Faustino, Dharma S. Khalsa, and Helen Lavretsky.

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