The ancient exercise of yoga is claimed to have multiple physical benefits – improving mobility, balance, and strength, while preventing or slowing frailty. It’s also said to offer mental health benefits and to protect your memory against cognitive decline.
Until recently, scientific backing for these claims has been lacking, but now results from multiple, well-designed studies have revealed that the health benefits of yoga are more than just folklore.
Here’s how the new science can help you…
The roots of yoga can be traced back 3000 years to ancient India. By the 15th century, 84 different physical postures had been developed forming a tradition that was said to heal the body, mind, and soul. Today, yoga is available in many different types and forms to suit just about anyone.
Some forms of yoga help those with physical or medical limitations. Others support people with certain health conditions. Still others focus on the mind, employing meditation, rhythmic breathing, relaxation, and guided imagery.
An approach that employs traditional yoga postures and meditation is now shown in numerous studies to improve the health of your memory.
Multiple Memory Benefits
Since the aging process alters connections between neural networks in the brain that impact working memory, attention and decision-making, researchers conducted a study to see if yoga could make a positive difference.
Researchers compared twenty women, with an average age of 66 and who practiced yoga at least twice a week for eight years, to a closely matched group of twenty women who didn’t practice yoga.
At the end of the study, the yoga group had better functional brain connectivity compared to controls. The researchers concluded that yoga leads to “a healthier cognitive aging process.”
Boosts The Health Of Brain Structures
In another study that examined functional markers of aging, a research group led by the University of Southern California examined the effect of yoga on 38 healthy individuals, average age of 35, who attended a three-month yoga and meditation retreat.
The research team found a significant three-fold increase in BDNF (a protein that protects against brain aging), an increase in the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (suggesting enhanced stress resilience), an increase in the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 and a decrease in the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-12. Participants also showed significant improvements in depression and anxiety scores, as well as improvements to various related physical symptoms.
In 2019, researchers at the University of Illinois and Wayne State University in Detroit carried out a systematic review of yoga’s impact on brain structure, function, and cerebral blood flow from brain scans.
They concluded that “the studies demonstrate a positive effect of yoga practice on the structure and/or function of the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks…yoga may hold promise to mitigate age-related and neurodegenerative declines as many of the regions identified are known to demonstrate significant age-related atrophy.”
Lowers Inflammation, Reduces Brain Aging
One study followed 96 healthy individuals who received a yoga and meditation-based lifestyle intervention. After 12 weeks, researchers analyzed changes in key blood markers of cellular aging and other markers linked to brain aging.
The researchers found a significant reduction in DNA damage, free radical levels and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as interleukin 6 (IL-6) — a marker of inflammation.
Researchers also found significant increases in the levels of antioxidants, the activity of telomerase (the enzyme that lengthens telomeres) and beta-endorphin (a hormone that lowers free radicals and inflammation while boosting immunity). In addition, the team tracked increases in BDNF, and surtuin-1, described as a longevity gene.
Greater Physical Mobility And Strength In Seniors
The most recent research review, led by the University of Arizona, highlighted the above evidence, and added findings specifically focused on middle-aged and older participants.
These included a reduction in anxiety and depression, improved muscle flexibility and range of motion, more overall back and abdominal muscle strength, greater spinal mobility, better balance, greater physical mobility, reduced risk for slips and falls, improved mental well-being, enhanced sleep, and quality of life.
When surveyed, seniors held positive beliefs about yoga, but those who didn’t practice yoga were concerned about its difficulty and the risk of injury. If this applies to you, this shouldn’t be an issue for you as long as a suitable beginner level class is available in your area.
For instance, Gentle Years Yoga caters specifically to the needs of older people with age-related conditions. It’s suitable for seniors with hip or knee replacements as well as for those with long-term health conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Best of all, even this gentle form of yogic exercise was shown to benefit mental and social well-being as well as aspects of physical function.
To find a yoga class near you go to