≡ Menu

Can yoga prevent dementia?

Still summer evening on Rosen Lake

Unruffled clarity: a still summer night on Rosen Lake

I certainly hope so, since genetics suggest that I’m going to be staring dementia straight in the eye. Except, of course, it doesn’t stare back. Instead it frets, repeatedly asking, “what day is it?” “what time is it?” and “where are we?”

One place we are is at the beginning of what is expected to be a steep climb in diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

At the moment, one out of every eight people 65 and older has dementia. By 85, the number is one in two. And as a society, we’re getting older.

Look for advice on Alzheimer’s prevention and you’ll find a fairly consistent message. There are no guarantees, but based on studies done so far you can substantially decrease your risk  if you:

• get plenty of exercise,

• eat a healthy diet

• refrain from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption

• avoid high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stress,

• and stay mentally and socially engaged.

Is there anything on that list that doesn’t happen automatically with a strong yoga practice?

People who practice asana seriously do more than the 30 minutes five times a week prescribed as an exercise program.  Vigorous work in the poses not only raises your heart rate, it’s weight bearing – for a yogi, the body provides its own gym.

Prolonged yoga practice seems to lead us to a healthy diet and an abstemious lifestyle whether we want it or not. No rule says you have to stop drinking, smoking and eating red meat in order to practice yoga, but somehow the longer you practice, the less interesting they become.

And to prevent diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure? Don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess, eat well and exercise.

Yoga practice relieves stress, and chronic stress can quadruple your risk of dementia.

In this case the effect is easy to measure and well documented: an hour of yoga significantly lowers blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s important because excessive cortisol wreaks havoc in the brain, hampering nerve cell growth and accelerating cognitive decline.

Commit yourself to yoga and you’ll have plenty of mental stimulation. Soon you’ll be learning the Sanksrit names of poses – a new language. There are sequences to remember, like dance steps, only slower, new poses to learn, new neural pathways to construct, new places to bring intelligence into your body.

Social contact? If you come to a registered class once a week you will gradually build a yoga community. How large or small you’d like it to be is your choice.

Is it just me or should we be looking at ways to integrate yoga more deeply into our preventative health planning?

In the meantime, I’m looking under “Brain” and “Loss of Memory” in the Curative Asanas for Various Diseases section in Light on Yoga. What’s recommended? Headstands and shoulder stands and their variations, forward bends, backbends, alternate nostril breathing, and in the “Brain” section, Ganda Bherundasana.

It’s back. B.K.S. Iyengar is 91, and still writing books. Perhaps we should look up the Ross Sisters and see how they’re doing.

B.K.S. Iyengar performing the final stage of Ganda Bherandasana

B.K.S. Iyengar performing the final stage of Ganda Bherandasana

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Judy June 10, 2010, 9:07 pm

    Can you believe the Ross sisters?! A bit scary really but fun to watch just the same. I know from both professional and personal experience that physical activity no matter what form it takes, lowers the impact of stress and promotes well being. Yoga is at the top of the list for me. I can not emphasize it enough in my practice. The importance of quiet can not be underestimated as well.