Forgetting names, faces, and important dates or events are all tell-tale signs of poor memory. This slow decline in our memory, thinking, and reasoning skills leaves us susceptible to age-related neurodegenerative diseases, including mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease, but researchers suggest this could potentially be reversed. A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found yoga and meditation could reduce the cognitive and emotional problems linked to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia compared to memory training exercises like crossword puzzles.

"Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided a broader benefit than memory training because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills," said Helen Lavretsky, study author and a professor in residence in UCLA's department of psychiatry, and a researcher at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in a statement.

"Brain fitness" exercises, like the commercially available memory training program Luminosity, have been touted for helping stave off age-related cognitive decline. The Luminosity program is made up of more than 40 games designed to improve cognitive abilities, including memory, attention and problem solving. Members are encouraged to play the games for 15 minutes, three to five times a week.

However, this game and other memory training programs have not been proven by the Federal Trade Commission to work the way they say they do. Rather, they take away from the real antidote that protects cognitive health in old age — a healthy, engaged lifestyle.

Lavretsky and her colleagues sought to compare the effects of yoga and meditation with memory training exercises on brain function in a small cohort of 25 participants over the age of 55 who reported issues with their memory. These issues included the tendency to forget names, faces or appointments, or to misplace things. The participants underwent memory tests and brain scans at the beginning and end of the study.

The participants were divided into two groups: 11 participants received one hour a week of memory enhancement training and spent 20 minutes a day performing memory exercises, like verbal and visual association to remember faces, names, and lists, and other strategies for improving memory, based on scientifically-proven techniques. The other 14 participants took a one-hour class once a week in Kundalini yoga — yoga that places emphasis on consciousness that activates energy centers throughout the body — and practiced Kirtan Kriya meditation — chanting, hand movements and visualization of light — at home for 20 minutes each day.

According to Lavretsky, Kirtan Kriya has been practiced for hundreds of years in India as a way to prevent cognitive decline in older adults.

The findings revealed that after 12 weeks the researchers saw similar improvements among both groups in verbal memory skills, which is useful for recalling locations and navigating while walking or driving. However, the yoga-meditation group fared better when it came to reducing feelings of depression and anxiety, and improving coping skills and resilience to stress. This is important since cognitive impairment can be an emotionally difficult condition to manage in old age.

"When you have memory loss, you can get quite anxious about that and it can lead to depression," Lavretsky said.

Improvement in memory coincided with changes in brain activity. Participants in both groups had changes in their brain connectivity, but the changes among the yoga group were more profound. Mindful exercise reduced stress and inflammation, improved mood and resilience, and enhanced the production of brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor — a protein that stimulates connections between neurons and kick-start telomerase activity. This is a process that replaces lost or damaged genetic material.

A similar 2013 study found mindfulness meditation has led to less shrinking in the hippocampus — the brain region that forms part of the limbic system and is mainly associated with memory and spatial navigation. Moreover, the researchers found older adult meditators had greater brain connectivity than those who didn’t meditate in the “default mode network,” an area of the brain involved in activities like daydreaming and thinking about the past and the future. This has been shown to improve memory.

Sarah Vaynerman, founder of Work From Om, a company that brings yoga, meditation and stress management to the workplace, and a yoga teacher, affirms the mental health benefits of yoga.

“Yoga also regulates the vagus nerve, one of the most important but least-known parts of our body that deals with our mood and stress levels,” she told Medical Daily.

Yoga does this by stimulating and increasing the activity of stress-blocking neurotransmitters.

In addition, the relaxation breathing in yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the rest-and-digest system that slows down heart rate and relaxes the muscles — to lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate when used to intervene on acute stress and anxiety, according to Vaynerman. This is particularly useful for older patients who can suffer emotional problems because of their mental struggles.

The research team proposes doctors look at alternative therapies like yoga to address common cognitive and emotional problems that come with neurodegenerative diseases.

"We're converting historical wisdom into the high level of evidence required for doctors to recommend therapy to their patients,” said Harris Eyre, lead author of the study, a doctoral candidate at Australia's University of Adelaide, and a former Fulbright scholar at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in a statement.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's, but past and present research suggests yoga and meditation could play a vital role in preventing and improving symptoms of the disease.

"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," Lavretsky said.

Taking 20 minutes out of the day to catch our breath and meditate could preserve or keep our mind agile later in life.

Source: Eyre HA, Acevedo B, Yang H et al. Changes in Neural Connectivity and Memory Following a Yoga Intervention for Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 2016.