The current ‘gold-standard’ in treating and preventing the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) without, or in coordination with, prescription medication is memory-enhancement training (MET) (1). MET programs utilize techniques such as mnemonics and repetition to help AD patients retain newly learned material and maintain older memories. While MET programs offer hope for patients hoping to maintain cognitive function in early-stage AD, it is not universally successful and often does not alleviate other symptoms of AD, including mood swings and aggression (2). Recent studies have begun to demonstrate that regular yoga and meditation practices are promising for improving and preserving cognitive function while also alleviating other AD symptoms.
While the benefits of exercise on cognitive function are well-established, Western studies have often focused on cardiovascular and high-intensity exercise practices. However, mind-body interventions derived from traditional Eastern medicine, such as yoga, tai-chi, and meditation, are growing in popularity in the Western world for stress management and regular exercise routines. One recent study compared the effects of MET programs to those of Kirtan Kriya practice (a short routine which utilizes visualization, mantra-reciting, and coordinated hand-movements) (1). In the study, participants with AD and mild cognitive impairments were assigned either to regular MET or Kirtan Kriya (KK) and Kundalini yoga practices over the course of twelve weeks. KK-assigned patients practiced Kundalini yoga for one sixty-minute session a week, and performed twelve minutes of KK daily. MET participants were assigned daily work in established MET methods, such as associative strategies for name-face recognition and practicing memory habits. These participants met for sixty minutes weekly in small groups with a trainer who guided them through the MET program. Results revealed that while both groups demonstrated equivalent improvements in clinical and memory measures, the yoga group improved significantly in depression and visuospatial memory. This suggests that regular yoga and meditation practice may be a more holistic approach to treating AD. Other therapeutic programs which incorporate yoga and meditation have similar results: significant improvements in cognitive function, mood balancing, and greater visuospatial memory (3).
Though there is much more academic attention needed to fully understand why yoga and meditation are effective preventative measures against AD, current research has identified several molecular pathways affected by regular practice, including those which regulate metabolic function, neurotransmission, and inflammation (3). One study created an in vitro model of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons treated with Aβ1–42 for 48 hours to mimic the biological conditions seen in AD patients, specifically a significant reduction or loss of choline acetyltransferase expression and a knockdown in the expression of receptor p75, which binds neurotrophins. These cells were then treated with different combinations of neurotransmitters and neutrophils secreted during meditation and yoga practices. Two combinations — serotonin and dopamine, serotonin and histamine — proved to be effective in returning cholinergic function (3). Medical yoga therapy has slowly begun to integrate itself into common practice in Western medicine (4). Regular, individualized practice created in conjunction with healthcare providers and rehabilitation specialists offers promising results in many facets of life beyond neurological function: cardiovascular health, flexibility, strength, and balance all improve with regular practice. Meditation and yoga are also low-expense, do not require much specialized equipment, and are easily accessible and adaptable to people of all ages and abilities. This makes these mindfulness-based therapies a much more integrative and holistic approach to treating AD.
- Eyre, H. A., Acevedo, B., Yang, H., Siddarth, P., Van Dyk, K., Ercoli, L., Leaver, A. M., Cyr, N. S., Narr, K., Baune, B. T., Khalsa, D. S., & Lavretsky, H. (2016). Changes in Neural Connectivity and Memory Following a Yoga Intervention for Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 52(2), 673–684. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-150653
- Clare, L., Wilson, B. A., Carter, G., Roth, I., & Hodges, J. R. (2002). Relearning face-name associations in early Alzheimer’s disease. Neuropsychology, 16(4), 538–547. https://doi.org/10.1037//0894-418.104.22.1688
- Hassan, A., Robinson, M., & Willerth, S. (2020). Determining the mechanism behind yoga’s effects on preventing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Neural Regeneration Research, 15(2),261. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6905332/
- Stephens I. (2017). Medical Yoga Therapy. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 4(2), 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/children4020012