In 2020, it was estimated that there were over 55 million people with dementia worldwide—and that number was expected to double every 20 years. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the term “dementia” refers not just to one disease, but a range that includes Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and Huntington’s disease. But the common symptoms are memory loss, confusion, paranoia, and inappropriate behavior, as well as physical deterioration that manifests as trouble standing or walking. Caused by the loss of, or damage to, nerve cells and their connections in the brain, most common forms of dementia are irreversible.
While some of the factors that cause dementia are inherent, such as age, family history, and heart disease, there are measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline. One particular activity has been shown to be effective in helping to prevent dementia. Read on to find out what you can do to boost your brain health.
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Approximately 36 million Americans practice yoga, according to The Good Body. The practice has long been known as a popular activity with benefits that range from reducing anxiety to improving your love life, as well as being an effective way to burn calories. The NIH reports that according to a 2012 survey, 94 percent of adults practice yoga for wellness-related reasons, 17.5 percent utilize the activity to treat a health condition, and that some people do both.
Now research is showing that yoga can have a profound effect on your cognitive health, too. “When people think of yoga, they imagine stretching their body into various poses. While this is true, it also has many benefits for the brain,” says Doreen Cooper, a certified yoga instructor and health and life coach. “Yoga can reduce stress and inflammation, and improve resilience in lost or damaged genetic material, creating a more ‘fit brain.'”
Most of us are familiar with the concept of yoga—an exercise that consists of a yoga mat, calming stretches, and elegant poses with whimsical names like “Lord of the Fishes” and “Revolved Half Moon.” But what are the elements that really define yoga? The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH) defines the extremely popular activity as “an ancient and complex practice, rooted in Indian philosophy” which began “as a spiritual practice, but has become popular as a way of promoting physical and mental well-being.” Yoga, as it is most commonly practiced, consists of poses, breathing techniques, chanting, and meditation. These components engage different parts of the brain, explains the Minded Institute: “Each of these facets can help the brain to form new connections through the stimulation of neuroplasticity.”
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Harvard Health describes yoga as “strengthen[ing] the parts of the brain that play a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language”—comparing it to “weightlifting for the brain.” Cooper agrees: “When you do yoga, your brain cells develop new connections, and changes occur in brain structure as well as function. Improved mental clarity, awareness, language, and even learning new skills are some additional benefits that a yoga practice can bring.” Dementia can affect all these aspects of cognitive health, Cooper adds, making yoga an essential part of a preventative care plan.
Studies using MRI scans and other kinds of imaging techniques shows the results of yoga on the brain: “People who regularly did yoga had a thicker cerebral cortex (the area of the brain responsible for information processing) and hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in learning and memory) compared with non-practitioners,” says Harvard Health. “These areas of the brain typically shrink as you age, but the older yoga practitioners showed less shrinkage than those who did no yoga. This suggests that yoga may counteract age-related declines in memory and other cognitive skills.”
Another aspect of dementia that is positively affected by practicing yoga is stress, which according to the Minded Institute, “has been shown to be a strong correlate of Alzheimer’s both for sufferers and their caregivers.” Stress and anxiety are connected to “inflammation in the body and central nervous system, hormone dis-regulation, sympathetic nervous system over-arousal and compromised quality of life.” In addition, while anxiety disorders are thought to be a risk factor for different types of dementia, repetitive negative thinking (RNT)—a manifestation of stress—can also make people more likely to experience cognitive decline.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are other habits you can practice that may help prevent dementia. These include cardiovascular exercise, participating in brain-engaging activities (such as learning a second language), getting adequate sleep, and choosing to eat a healthy, balanced diet “lower in fat and higher in vegetables and fruit to help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”
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