Yoga Trumps Relaxation in Caregiver Mental Health

Caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients typically experience greater levels of loneliness, exhaustion, stress, and depression. A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that just 12 minutes of daily yoga practice (Kirtan Kriya meditation) over eight weeks appears to improve mental health and telomerase activity, a marker of cellular aging, among family dementia caregivers.

Alzheimer’s affects some 5.4 million individuals in the US. According to researcher Dr. Heven Lavretsky, caregivers of those afflicted with the debilitating disease experience rates of clinical depression approaching 50 percent. They are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress. Many caregivers are resistant to taking antidepressant medication due to cost and side effects, which prompted this study to assess the effectiveness of a mind-body approach.

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The researchers randomly assigned thirty-nine family dementia caregivers aged 45 to 91 to one of two groups: 1) Kirtan Kriya yoga practice or 2) relaxation music. Each practice was assigned daily for 12 minutes at the same time for an eight-week duration. The Kirtan Kriya group was comprised of several elements, including chanting, mudra (finger poses), and visualization, while the relaxation group relaxed quietly with eyes closes listening to instrumental music on a CD.

Results at the end of eight weeks were “striking,” says Lavretsky. Relative to the control group, Kirtan Kriya participants demonstrated significantly lower levels of depression and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning. Measurement of telomerase activity showed a 3.7% increase in the relaxation group, whereas the yoga condition improved a whopping 43% over the course of the study.

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Telomerase is an enzyme responsible for telomere length and maintenance, reductions of which have been linked to aging, psychological distress, and other health problems such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Several recent studies have suggested meditation practice may increase telomerase, although this is the first study to link chanting, visualization, and mantra to increases in telomerase activity.

This study is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, the researchers used a rigorous design (randomized controlled trial) that allows us to infer preliminary causality; because of the active control group, we are able to say that the yoga condition was most likely to cause the observed improvements, rather than other extraneous factors. Secondly, it contributes to our understanding of how yoga and related practices feature benefits that may prove additive to the relaxation response.

Finally, this study renders a unique contribution to our understanding of yoga’s benefits as a whole. Most Western yoga research focuses on yoga asana or meditation, only two limbs of yoga’s eight-limbed path. This study suggests that yogic practices not commonly perceived as yoga or meditation (though Kirtan Kriya represents both) are still highly effective. Kirtan Kriya appears more effective, to boot, than relaxation, an evidence-based and often-utilized therapeutic approach for the over-stressed.

Have you or someone you know benefited from yoga as a caregiver? Share your experience with us.

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