Just before Pete turned 57, he wrote in his journal about a feeling that his memories were unraveling. “When I try to remember my parents and my life with them, it is all hazy and vague,” he wrote and later shared with the Alzheimer’s Association. “Their images are fuzzy, the happenings obscure, the flow of things lost. Just bits and pieces; fragments left of the day-to-day that was our existence, our life.” Pete is not alone in this unsettling reckoning of early dementia. The experience of losing one’s memories holds perhaps one of the most frightening prospects of aging and one familiar to a large swath of the population.
“I wonder sometimes,” he continued, “if I really worked at it, if I could retrieve it, recover those images and stories that seem to have faded into the mist of time.” Luckily for Pete and other sufferers of dementia, promising new studies indicate that the regular practice of yoga may help with memory loss and even help people regain their memories.
A mind-body practice that requires focused attention, yoga may serve to enhance brain function over time, turning back the cognitive tendency toward memory loss. In a recent Brazilian study comparing the cortical thickness of elderly yogis to those of age-matched non-practitioners, tentative conclusions show the significant effects of yoga on memory and brain resiliency. Brain scans of older yogis compared to those of contrasting control groups of the same age reveal that yoga promotes strength in areas of the brain associated with attention, awareness, executive function, and memory.
“In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training,” Elisa Kozasa, co-author of the study noted. Through the combination of breathing regulation, meditation, and yoga postures, the brain responds by shoring up potential deficiencies in mental acuity, a great comfort to those of us who increasingly forget names or where we’ve put our keys.
The Brazil study included 21 women over the age of 60 who had practiced hatha yoga at least twice per week over the last eight years. The researchers compared the brain scans of these women to those of 21 other women who were naïve to yoga and other mind-body interventions. The brain scans revealed a clear differentiation in cortical thickness between the two groups, indicating that the women who practiced yoga had thicker and thus stronger prefrontal lobe areas of the brain—areas associated with language and memory.
The researchers have not concluded why a yoga practitioner’s brain develops in this way over time, yet they note that previous studies have linked this activity in the brain with meditation. The study proposes that through the practice of yoga, muscles are engaged in a way that promotes attention and “increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex,” which may give those regions that process memory a hearty workout.
Similarly, a UCLA study links yoga to bolstered cognitive function by comparing the effects of yoga on a group of people with Alzheimer’s to those of a control group who practiced brain-training games and aerobic exercise. In this 2016 study, researchers found that a three-month yoga course helped elderly participants regain their faltering memories and alleviate the stress of impending memory loss. The control group who focused on memory games alone, or just aerobic exercise without the meditative component, failed to achieve the level of relief or cognitive restoration as that of the yoga students.
Researchers in both of these studies concede that more research is needed to confirm the implications of these findings, yet the evidence presented is still compelling. With our personal memories at stake, yoga offers hope in the face of the inevitable cognitive aging process. We all want to remember the rich and meaningful details of our lives as long as we can before they “fade into the mist of time.” Perhaps we may meet those memories in the stillness of our breath and postures as we settle into the rhythm of yoga.