The Effects of Yoga on Patients with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia Australia, the leading information and support organisation for dementia in the country, found that 30 percent of Australians over 85 and nearly 10 percent of those over 65 currently suffer from some form of dementia. They are part of the over 400 thousand Australians who were found to have dementia in 2019, and this number is only expected to grow in the following decades.

Alzheimer’s Disease – a neurodegenerative disease that causes the shrinking and decaying of the brain and its functions – is the most common and well-documented form of dementia, comprising over 60% of all cases of dementia worldwide. With symptoms that range from short-term memory loss to impairments to cognitive skills and a loss of the ability to control emotions, living with dementia is just as devastating experience for the victim’s loved ones as it is for the victims themselves.

Despite many years and many millions of dollars poured into research into the disease, Alzheimer’s disease (as well as other, less understood forms of dementia) remains incurable as of the publishing of this article and for the foreseeable future. At present the best options we have right now for dementia aged care is to simply help them live with the disease, curbing the intensity of the symptoms all the while. One of the most effective methods to help mitigate the symptoms of dementia is consistent cognitive training. By getting the dementia patient to solve simple math problems, puzzles, and games, the parts of the brain responsible for analysis and general thought are kept active, which has been found by research to have a significant effect in slowing down the progression of dementia in the patient.

Further research in recent years, however, has shown that there might be another way. One study published in 2016 examined various older adults who were suffering from mild cognitive impairment or MCI, a condition closely associated with the early stages of dementia. They were separated into two groups and given different types of intervention to help mitigate the symptoms of their condition over a 12-week period – one group underwent traditional cognitive training, while the other took yoga classes. Comparison and analysis of their brain activity in areas such as visual and verbal memory performance found similar results, which implied that yoga could be a viable alternative to traditional cognitive training in slowing the progression of cognitive impairment in dementia patients.

Another study examined about sixty Alzheimer’s patients that showed mild to moderate symptoms of cognitive impairment. These patients went through a Hatha yoga program consisting of 35 sessions, each 1 hour long. The mental capacities of these patients were tested before the yoga program, immediately after the yoga program, and 6 months after the program. These assessments found a positive change in the mood and mental capacities of the patients in the test taken immediately after the program; however, the researchers did not find any improvement in any of the mentioned metrics when the patients were tested 6 months later. Despite that detail, the results of the study showed that yoga does have a positive effect on the brain functions of people with Alzheimer’s.

How does yoga improve brain function?

According to a study conducted by the University of Waterloo on the effects of yoga on the brain, yoga and meditation helps the brain focus on core bodily functions, improving the body’s performance of essential tasks such as breathing and maintaining a healthy posture. In addition, these exercises help the brain to filter out thought processes that are deemed unnecessary, allowing for more headroom to focus on these core bodily functions.

Kimberley Luu, the lead author of the study, stated that “This finding suggests that there may be something special about meditation – as opposed to the physical posing – that carries a lot of the cognitive benefits of yoga. There are a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance. These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. Though ultimately, it is still an open question.”

Peter Hall, associate professor of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, had the following to add: “Although the meditative aspect might be even more important than the physical posing for improving executive functions, there are additional benefits to Hatha yoga including improvements in flexibility and strength. These benefits may make Hatha yoga superior to meditation alone, in terms of overall health benefits.”

What’s the catch?

For one, we have to consider the fact that not all dementia patients will be able to take advantage of the benefits of Hatha yoga. Though the yoga poses and routines can be revised to accommodate older, less mobile patients, those who have physical disabilities will not be able to take part in the exercises with the same degree of faculty. For patients like these, meditation exercises do provide the patient with a similar environment that will allow them to focus their thoughts inward.

As unanimously beneficial as the studies we’ve covered might suggest, yoga is not a be-all, end-all solution. In fact, it was never a solution to dementia in the first place. As we’ve mentioned earlier, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and all of the measures researchers and doctors have come up with are only designed to work as a form of damage control, slowing down the deterioration of the patient’s cognitive functions.

Finding out that you or your loved one has dementia is not the easiest pill to swallow. Only trying times will follow from that point on. Find yourself a good dementia aged care provider, that supports this these kinds of activities, so you can rest assured your loved one is in good hands.

This is a guest post by Homestyle Aged Care Services.

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