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Learn about a yoga and meditation program that may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and review the benefits of tai chi for people with knee arthritis.

By Shirley Archer, JD, MA
Aug 2, 2016

Yoga and Meditation for Dementia Risk Reduction

New research shows that practicing yoga and meditation can not only provide physical benefits but also improve brain fitness and strengthen resilience.

A 3-month course of yoga and meditation for adults over age 55 reduced the cognitive and emotional problems that often precede forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, more effectively than memory enhancement exercises did, according to a study reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2016; 52, 673-84).

“Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided broader benefit than memory training because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skill,” said study author Helen Lavretsky, PhD, professor in residence in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a UCLA news release. It is a significant point that yoga and meditation practice was superior to the memory enhancement exercises, as these are considered the gold standard for managing mild cognitive impairment.

To compare the two methods, investigators evaluated 25 adults who had reported memory issues. Participants were randomly divided into two groups: memory enhancement training, and Kundalini yoga plus Kirtan Kriya meditation practice. All participants underwent brain scans and memory tests at the beginning and end of the 12-week study. All subjects engaged in 1 hour per week of class training, complemented by 20 minutes of daily home practice.

Data analysis showed equal improvement in verbal memory skills among members in both groups. The groups differed, however, in the amount of improvement they made in visual-spatial memory—the memory used to navigate in space. Yoga and meditation practitioners showed more progress with visual-spatial memory, along with the added benefits of greater reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. This group also saw more improvement in coping skills and stress resilience.

Study authors explained that stress resilience is important because the experience of cognitive impairment can be difficult. “When you have memory loss, you can get quite anxious and it can lead to depression,” said Lavretsky.

Data analysis from brain scans supported the findings. While all participants experienced changes in brain connectivity, only changes among the yoga and meditation group subjects were statistically significant. Study authors believed that changes in the brain from mindful activities like yoga and meditation are likely due to a reduction in stress and inflammation, improvement in mood and resilience, and enhanced production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor. This protein stimulates neuronal connectivity and also telomerase activity, a process that replaces lost or damaged genetic material on a cellular level.

While more research is recommended, the good news is that the evidence from this study supports broad benefits—extending to improvements in cognitive health and resilience–from a regular yoga and meditation practice. Lavretsky said, “If you or your relatives are trying to improve your memory or offset the risk for developing memory loss or dementia, a regular practice of yoga and meditation could be a simple, safe and low-cost solution to improving your brain fitness.”

Tai Chi and Knee Osteoarthritis

If you’re offering a tai chi program, you may want to share the following news with people who are looking for arthritic-knee-pain solutions. A large study, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine (2016; 165 [2], 1-11), found that tai chi practice is as effective as physical therapy for common knee osteoarthritis with the additional benefits of improving mood and well-being.

“This research strengthened the evidence that the effectiveness and durability of both tai chi and physical therapy extend to obese older adults with knee osteoarthritis,” said lead study author Chenchen Wang, MD, MSc, director of the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, in a Tufts Medical Center news release. People who are significantly overweight typically face challenges when trying to find effective treatments for their knee arthritis.

Tufts University researchers wanted to determine whether tai chi could be a reasonable alternative to physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis, a leading cause of long-term pain and disability among older adults. Investigators studied 200 people, average age of 60, who had suffered with knee osteoarthritis for an average of 8 years. Most individuals were overweight or obese. Investigators randomly assigned subjects to either a standard physical therapy group or a tai chi group. The first group underwent physical therapy twice a week for 6 weeks, followed by 6 weeks of monitored home exercise. The second group practiced tai chi with an instructor twice weekly for 12 weeks. All subjects continued routine medications and usual doctor visits. The researchers collected data to evaluate patients for pain, stiffness and joint functioning at the beginning of the study, after 12 weeks and 1 year later.

Data review showed that participants in both the physical therapy and tai chi groups experienced significant improvements in function, pain and stiffness. In addition, only tai chi group members showed significant improvement in relief from depression symptoms. Wang said, “The mind component [of tai chi] promotes psychological well-being, life satisfaction, and improved perceptions of health.”

Study authors noted that tai chi provides improvements equal to physical therapy, while also enhancing well-being, reducing depression, and avoiding potential side effects from arthritis medications. Wang suggested that people who are looking for qualified tai chi instructors go to a local gym or athletic club.

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

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