Yoga isn't just good for the body; it might help your memory too, a small new study suggests.
The study involved 25 adults ages 55 and over who had mild cognitive impairment, or problems with thinking and memory that sometimes precede Alzheimer's disease. The participants were randomly assigned to complete either a three-month course in yoga and meditation, or to practice memory-training exercises, consisting of skills and tricks already known to boost memory.
At the end of the study, the two groups saw similar improvements in their verbal memory, which is the type of memory used when people remember names or lists of words. But those who practiced yoga had bigger improvements in visual-spatial memory, the type of memory used to recall locations and navigate while driving.
The yoga group also saw bigger reductions in their symptoms of depression and anxiety than did the brain-training group.
"Historically and anecdotally, yoga has been thought to be beneficial in aging well, but this is the scientific demonstration of that benefit," study co-author Harris Eyre, a doctoral candidate at Australia's University of Adelaide, said in a statement. "We're converting historical wisdom into the high level of evidence required for doctors to recommend therapy to their patients," said Eyre, who conducted the study with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. [7 Reasons You Should Meditate]
The yoga training involved a weekly class in Kundalini yoga, which involves breathing exercises, chanting, meditation, hand movements and visualization of light. Participants in this group were also told to practice a chanting mediation called Kirtan Kriya at home for 20 minutes each day.
The group that did the memory-training exercises participated in weekly sessions to learn skills to boost their memory, such as learning how to associate certain images or words with people's faces and names to remember them better.
Both groups also showed changes in their brain activity that reflected improvements in memory, the researchers said.
The type of yoga practiced in the study may improve memory because it involves chanting and visualizations, which may strengthen certain verbal and visual skills, and also improve overall awareness and attention, the researchers said. It's also thought that practicing yoga may increase the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor, which stimulates the growth of connections among neurons, the researchers said.
However, because the new study was small, more research is needed in larger groups of people to confirm the findings, the researchers said.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.