Long-term yoga practice could change brain structure and ward off cognitive decline in old age, new research has found.
The aerobic exercise, originally from India, has surged in global popularity in recent years and is renowned for its mood-boosting and wellness properties.
And now, researchers in Brazil have discovered that it could be responsible for helping older people maintain their memory, attention and decision-making skills, if practised over several years.
Scientists set out to see if practising the exercise over a long period of time could “significantly change the brain,” and if elderly practitioners had a different brain structure to those of a similar age, who had never practised.
They surveyed 21 yoginis (female yoga practitioners) who had practised consistently for at least eight years, along with 21 women who had never performed yoga but matched the yoginis’ fitness levels.
All participants were over 60 and were “well-matched in other factors that can change brain structure” such as education and levels of depression.
Researchers then used MRI scans to compare brain structures between the two groups.
“We found greater thickness in the left prefrontal cortex in the yoginis, in brain regions associated with cognitive functions such as attention and memory,” said researcher Rui Afonso.
Findings from the research, published in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience, could mean that the exercise might stave off the effects of cognitive decline, such as memory loss.
Previous studies have shown that older adults with mild cognitive impairments have benefited from short-term yoga training.
“In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training,” researcher Elisa Kozasa said.
“Like any contemplative practice, yoga has a cognitive component in which attention and concentration are important.”
However, it is also possible that people with these pre-existing brain features are more likely to be attracted to the aerobic exercise.
Afonso said: “We have compared experienced yoginis with non-practitioners, so we do not know if the yoginis already had these differences before they started yoga,” explains Afonso.
“This can only be confirmed by studying people for a few years from the time they start yoga.”
The scientists now want to further their research to explore whether long-term yoga can actually enhance cognitive performance in older people.