Memory is one of the most powerful abilities of the human mind. Billions of neurons at any given second are firing within your brain to help store, recall, rewrite, and analyze everything from the memory of what you ate for breakfast this morning to the syntax you learned in high school English class, to the emotion you felt watching your daughter’s first steps that can still bring a proud smile to your face.
We often don’t consider the vital role memory plays in the healthy function of both our body and brain. Emotion, cognition, and behavior all rely intricately on the ability of our brain to remember and recall. We often forget that memory is integral to our ability to act, speak, feel, and even simply breathe — that is until our memory is threatened.
Alzheimer’s is a growing epidemic, with more than 5.8 million Americas affected. One in 10 people in the US aged 65 and over has Alzheimer’s, and it’s more likely than not that you know someone, are related to someone, perhaps even multiple someone’s, who are affected by this highly prevalent disease (Alzheimer’s Association, 2019).
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, which is why we at Better Living Yoga want to hold space for the power that memory plays in not only the quality of our lives but the quality of our health!
As yoga practitioners and instructors, we hold a powerful tool for maintaining both body and brain health, part of which is memory, and exciting new research indicates that yoga can play a part in maintaining our memory over our lifetime.
This month, in this blog, we bring you compelling information about how the practice of yoga applies to memory, a flagship opportunity for teachers to learn how to help students delay the onset of memory-loss related diseases and maintain their memory for a lifetime of wellbeing, and the details on an exciting opportunity to make some memories of your own with us at Better Living Yoga in our Memory Maintenance Yoga Classes.
What is Alzheimer’s and how is it different from normal aging?
Alzheimer’s is a degrative brain disease which is thought to begin 20 or more years before symptoms arise. After years of small but incremental brain damage thought to be caused primarily by the buildup of toxic proteins in the brain and lack of quality nutrients, symptoms progressively become noticeable. Symptoms occur because nerve cells (neurons) in parts of the brain involved in thinking, learning, and memory (cognitive function) have been damaged or destroyed. While individuals typically live with Alzheimer’s for years, over time symptoms worsen and the disease is ultimately fatal as the body progressively forgets how to perform vital functions. (Alzheimer’s Association, 2019).
Brain changes associated with the disease include inflammation and atrophy, the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques (protein fragments) around neurons, as well as the buildup of abnormal proteins called tau tangles. “Beta-amyloid plaques may contribute to cell death by interfering with neuron-to-neuron communication at synapses, while tau tangles block the transport of nutrients and other essential molecules inside neurons. As the amount of beta-amyloid increases, a tipping point is reached at which abnormal tau spreads throughout the brain” (Alzheimer’s Association, 2019). Thus, when the brain is affected by Alzheimer’s disease, both structural changes (cell death) and activation alterations (reduced neuronal firing and communication) occur and lead to progressive degeneration of cognitive, social, emotional, and eventually physical capacities.
However, Alzheimer’s effects are not limited to neurons. Genetic changes associated with Alzheimer’s include the shortening of telomeres (normal to aging but excessive in Alzheimer’s) and reduced ability to produce the telomere-supporting enzyme telomerase. Telomeres are protective end caps which rest on each strand of DNA in the human body. Stress shortens our telomeres, releasing the stress hormone cortisol into our body and eroding telomeres making them worn down through the chronic and acute stresses we experience during our daily life. This process has been directly linked to a number of health issues, particularly Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Yoga through mindfulness practices has been shown to have a protective impact on telomeres and the production of telomerase, helping to ward off the normative and non-normative aging processes (Miller, 2019).
Despite years of research, science has yet to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, and the topic can often leave us feeling the darkness in the world. But in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, yoga may be that light.
Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” – Desmond Tutu.
Memory Maintenance Yoga
Research in the field of yoga for brain health increasingly uncovers the number of ways in which yoga supports our memory function and staves off Alzheimer’s disease!
Our memory is a rich resource which adds meaning and continuity to our lives. Some form of memory whether short-term or long-term is involved in nearly all of our mental functions. The literature on yoga for brain health reveals that these ancient practices also serve to support this integral mental ability.
Scientific results indicate that a cyclical series of yoga postures helped to improve memory scores post-practice (Subramanya & Telles, 2009).
More specifically, another study examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on working memory (a form of short-term memory involved in immediate processing of conscious perception) and found that working memory improved after the practice (Quach, Mano, & Alexander, 2016).
Meanwhile, additional research has demonstrated that yoga can improve verbal and visuospatial memory. The study at hand found that yoga increased structural connectivity in the brain areas associated with verbal processing and spatial and visual processing, thereby increasing outcomes on measures of memory (Eyre et al., 2016).
It is incredibly powerful that so many empirical studies have found results indicating yoga improves a variety of different mental functions!
Retrospective memory, known as the memory of people, words, and events which one has experienced in the past was also found to improve with meditation practice. Additionally, this study also found that meditation improved sleep outcomes, an important factor in the body’s ability to process and store memory (Innes, Selfe, Brown, Rose, & Thompson-Heisterman, 2012).
A meta-analysis (the review of many scientific articles to compare and contrast) revealed that practitioners who come to the mat regularly and habitually perform significantly better on tests of:
• attention and concentration
• remote memory
• mental balance
• delayed recall
• immediate recall
• verbal retention of dissimilar pairs
• visual retention and recognition
• and have better overall mental health
All of the above abilities rely in some way on crucial memory capacities (Nangia & Malhotra, 2012).
Another meta-analysis evaluating yoga as an intervention for cognitive health discovered that yoga improved attention and processing speed, executive function, and memory (Gothe, & McAuley, 2015). It is incredibly powerful that so many articles have found results indicating yoga improves a variety of different mental functions!
Given the many studies mentioned, one can consider it fairly established in the field of yoga for brain health that yoga actually helps to promote memory functions. But as further study reveals, it also serves to protect against both normal and non-normative age and disease-related decline in mental functioning.
We discussed how Alzheimer’s symptoms are partially due to the degeneration of brain structures, or the death of cells responsible for various aspects of functioning. As humans age, the hippocampus, an area integral to memory begins to shrink beginning in late adulthood. This aging process is considered natural to some extent, but it can lead to impaired memory and even Alzheimer’s and dementia if healthy activities that enhance brain function.
Yoga is one such brain enhancing activity, and aerobic activities such as vinyasa flow can help to stave off decreases in hippocampal volume and even increase the size of this memory network, which corresponds to better memory, longer (Erickson, et al. 2011).
More specifically, yoga has been shown to maintain and possibly even increase brain density in long-term practitioners in areas important to higher cognitive functioning, social functioning, memory, and more (Afonso, 2017). Thus, yoga helps to ward off the deterioration of brain tissue that supports memory, thus protecting against diseases which would undermine memory and cognitive function.
Engagement — Fire together, wire together
A psychology professor of mine used to use the phrase “fire together, wire together,” to remind his students that neurons which are activated together create stronger pathways in the brain and in so doing increase the efficiency and functionality of that pathway and the cognition, emotion, and behaviors it supports. This phenomenon is directly related to the level of brain activation, which we know decreases in Alzheimer’s patients. However, it also means that using these pathways more often helps to strengthen them and protect against decreases in overall brain activation.
Research indicates that yoga offers an important opportunity for engagement. Research increasingly shows that engaging with your outer world as much as possible insulates an individual with protective factors which help to prevent memory decline.
In the words of Denise Park, who is a psychologist and director of the Productive Aging Laboratory at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, Dallas, “It’s important to act engaged in your environment, be it through learning, be it through social interaction, be it through exercise.” This engagement not only helps to keep the brain active, but social networks also help to facilitate and encourage healthy behaviors (Diament, M. 2008).
Research reveals that yoga serves as a physical, mental, and social support for maintaining cognitive function and memory.
More specifically, research demonstrates that pranayama (breathing), Dhyana (meditation), particularly Kirtan Kriya (meditation paired with movement and chanting), and asana (postures) practice increased overall brain wave activity and brain activation. Additionally, researchers observed increases in gray matter (neuron cell bodies) along with increases in the amygdala (involved in emotional processing) and frontal cortex activation (involved in social function and all higher-order thinking) were evident after a yoga intervention. In other words, not only did yoga have positive effects on brain structure, but also on structural activation within the brain (Desai, Tailor, & Bhatt, 2015).
An additional way that yoga supports mental function and prevents the disease-related decline of memory is via reduction of stress. Stress reduction not only helps reduce inflammation in the body, particularly the brain (inflammation is one of the brain changes associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease) but also by helping to protect against the genetic changes associated with the disease.
By lowering our stress levels, as has been shown to occur in almost every form of yoga and mind-body practice, yoga practice actually prevents the destruction of telomeres and the decline of memory and other important mental functions. Statistically, reduction of stress via yogic practices also reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, and rates of Alzheimer’s and stroke, which are all risk factors for our ability to produce telomerase and shortening of our telomeres (Miller, 2017). Reducing your stress and thereby protecting your telomeres also helps to ward off other natural processes related to human aging to keep you feeling and looking younger and brighter longer.
Given that stress-reduction is clearly so integral to both mental and physical wellbeing, it is no wonder that yoga increasingly draws new practitioners with a deep passion for healing themselves and living well.
Research reveals that yoga serves as a physical, mental, and social support for maintaining cognitive function and memory, operating as a protective factor and also serving to increase activation and volume of key brain areas involved in these important functions.
Opportunities to engage in Memory Maintenance through Yoga
After having read about the amazing health-enhancing benefits of yoga for maintaining memory and preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s, I’m sure you are feeling as inspired as we are to engage in a practice which will enhance your mental function, particularly memory!
Better Living Yoga has developed a Memory Maintenance Yoga (MMY) Class that incorporates the yoga for brain health findings. Presently, Better Living Yoga offers four MMY classes on our schedule with plans for expansion.
We have also in partnership with Soma Yoga Institute developed an online MMY Teacher Training Program to teach yoga teachers around the global how to teach MMY classes in their communities. To find out more about this program or to register for the training, “Click here”
Additionally, we have started a Yoga 4 Brain Health Facebook resource page hosted by Better Living Yoga which seeks to create a platform for sharing, inspiring, and educating a powerful community of practitioners and instructors about the benefits of yoga for mental wellness. You can find and follow Yoga 4 Brain Health “HERE” at our Facebook page where you will receive all the latest updates! We will be sharing new literature of interest to the topic in our evolving online library, as well as announcements about upcoming events and workshops on the topic of yoga for brain health.
STAY TUNED to Better Living Yoga as we curate more information and develop more programming to promote yoga and a yogic lifestyle for slowing the progression and possibly even preventing Alzheimer’s.
Aubree is a yoga teacher, artist, and writer. YYT 200, owner of Root To Rise Holistics (@roottoriseholistics on Instagram).
Alzheimer’s Association. (2019). Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Alzheimers Dement 2019;15(3):321-87. https://www.alz.org/media/Documents/alzheimers-facts-and-figures-2019-r.pdf
Miller, R. (2019). Telemeres, Telemerase, Ageing, and iRest.
Subramanya, P., & Telles, S. (2009). Effect of two yoga-based relaxation techniques on memory scores and state anxiety. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 3(1), 8.
Quach, D., Mano, K. E. J., & Alexander, K. (2016). A randomized controlled trial examining the effect of mindfulness meditation on working memory capacity in adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(5), 489-496.
Eyre, H. A., Acevedo, B., Yang, H., Siddarth, P., Van Dyk, K., Ercoli, L., … & Khalsa, D. S. (2016). Changes in neural connectivity and memory following a yoga intervention for older adults: a pilot study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 52(2), 673-684.
Innes, K. E., Selfe, T. K., Brown, C. J., Rose, K. M., & Thompson-Heisterman, A. (2012). The effects of meditation on perceived stress and related indices of psychological status and sympathetic activation in persons with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers: a pilot study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.
Nangia, D., & Malhotra, R. (2012). Yoga, cognition and mental health. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 38(2), 262-269.
Gothe, N. P., & McAuley, E. (2015). Yoga and cognition: a meta-analysis of chronic and acute effects. Psychosomatic medicine, 77(7), 784-797.
Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., Kim, J. S., Heo, S., Alves, H., White, S. M., Wojcicki, T. R., Mailey, E., Vieira, V. J., Martin, S. A., Pence, B. D., Woods, J. A., McAuley, E., … Kramer, A. F. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 3017-22.
Afonso, R. F., Balardin, J. B., Lazar, S., Sato, J. R., Igarashi, N., Santaella, D. F., Lacerda, S. S., Amaro, E., … Kozasa, E. H. (2017). Greater Cortical Thickness in Elderly Female Yoga Practitioners-A Cross-Sectional Study. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 9, 201. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2017.00201
Diament, M. (2008) Friends make you smart. AARP Bulletin. Retrieved from: https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-11-2008/friends-are-good-for-your-brain.html
Desai, R., Tailor, A., & Bhatt, T. (2015). Effects of yoga on brain waves and structural activation: A review. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 21(2), 112-118.
Photo by Brian D’Cruz Hypno Plus