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Strike a Pose


Published May 12, 2016 8:00 AM

UCLA-led study finds yoga and meditation more effective than memory-boosting exercises in preventing cognitive impairment that may precede Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo courtesy of Alvarez/iStock.

Inner peace and a flexible body may not be the most valuable benefits of yoga and meditation, according to new research by a UCLA-led team of neuroscientists.

The team found that a three-month course of yoga and meditation practice helped minimize the cognitive and emotional problems that often precede Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia — and that it was even more effective than the memory enhancement exercises that have been considered the gold standard for managing mild cognitive impairment.

“Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga . . . also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills,” says Helen Lavretsky, the study’s senior author and a professor in residence in UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry.

The study, which appeared May 10 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, is the first to compare outcomes of yoga and meditation with those of memory training.

The participants Lavretsky studied had reported issues with their memory, such as tendencies to forget names, faces or appointments or to misplace things.

Eleven participants received one hour a week of memory enhancement training and spent 20 minutes a day performing memory exercises — verbal and visual association and other practical strategies for improving memory, based on research-backed techniques.

The other 14 participants took a one-hour class once a week in Kundalini yoga and practiced Kirtan Kriya meditation at home for 20 minutes each day. Kirtan Kriya, which involves chanting, hand movements and visualization of light, has been practiced for hundreds of years in India as a way to prevent cognitive decline in older adults, Lavretsky said.

After 12 weeks, the researchers saw similar improvements among participants in both groups in verbal memory skills — which come into play for remembering names and lists of words. But those who had practiced yoga and meditation had greater improvements than the other subjects in visual–spatial memory skills, which are used in recalling locations and navigating while walking or driving.

The yoga-meditation group also had better results in reducing depression and anxiety, and improving coping skills and resilience to stress.

The researchers attribute the positive “brain fitness” effects of mindful exercise to several factors, including the abilities of the practice to reduce stress and inflammation, improve mood and resilience, and enhance production of brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor, a protein the stimulates connections between neurons and kick-starts telomerase activity, a process that replaces lost or damaged genetic material.

“If you or your relatives are trying to improve your memory or offset the risk for developing memory loss or dementia, a regular practice of yoga and meditation could be a simple, safe and low-cost solution to improving your brain fitness,” Lavretsky says.

The study was funded by the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.

This story is based on an article in the UCLA Newsroom. To view the original full-length article visit



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