Yoga instructors may want to tout the benefits of yoga practice, not only for physical conditioning and stress reduction, but also for improving brain health.

Older adults who enrolled in a twice-weekly program
of yoga plus memory training for 4 weeks saw significant improvements in memory performance, ability to manage activities of daily living, and memory self-efficacy, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing (2015; 47 [3], 178-88). “Memory training and yoga may be used in combination with other behavioral techniques (e.g., improved sleep protocols) to help older adults experience successful cognitive aging,” reported the study authors.

Researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, wanted to determine whether adding yoga to previously tested (SeniorWISE-based) methods of improving cognitive performance in older adults would enhance outcomes and provide further support for using nondrug treatments to maintain healthy brain function and boost brain plasticity.

The study design was quasi-experimental, with pre- and post-intervention assessments but no control group. Out of 133 adults initially recruited from four retirement communities in central Texas, 83 (aged 53-96, average age 81) completed 9 of the 12 hours of training and took the post-intervention test. Sessions included 30 minutes of yoga and 1 hour of cognitive exercises. Testing assessed memory performance, instrumental activities of daily living, memory self-efficacy and depressive symptoms.

Data analysis showed that 20 participants advanced from “poor” to “normal” memory performance or from “impaired”
to “poor” memory performance, representing a significant increase in memory functioning. The number of adults who tested “normal” in memory performance rose from 2 in pretesting to 15 in posttesting, an impressive 650% increase (i.e., 13 improved from “poor” to “normal”). By comparison, in the SeniorWISE-only study, the number testing “normal” rose from 36 to 44—an increase of just 22%.

The percentage who progressed from “impaired” to “poor” was lower in the current study (26%) than in the SeniorWISE-
only study (46%), but overall, 40 participants (48%) increased their performance from one memory group to another at posttest when yoga was included. Without the yoga compo- nent, only 29% of participants made a similar improvement.

Lead study author Graham J. McDougall Jr., RN, PHD, a professor at Capstone College of Nursing, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, told IDEA Fitness Journal, “In addition to the memory performance and confidence improvements, we found a transfer of learning occurred, as demonstrated by a significant increase in performance-based instrumental activities of daily living, such as being able to correctly manage a complex daily medication regime.”

He added, “Movement and physical activity have demonstrated benefits on cognitive function. Yoga worked well with our population of older adults because of its adaptable nature to their abilities. We believe that older adults are capable of growing and changing throughout life—and all of this requires new learning. The findings from this study offer support to the notion of brain plasticity and brain health.”