Super-Agers and Yoga
While it is considered normal for brain power to decline as people age, studies show that it is not inevitable. Super-agers are people in their 80s, 90s and beyond that exhibit cognitive functioning comparable to people decades younger.
Many institutions have invested a great deal of research on this segment of the population, including Harvard University, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Health and Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Magnetic-resonance imaging of this group consistently shows that super-agers exhibit slower loss of brain volume than their peers, providing them with better protection against dementia.
While many factors can contribute to becoming a super-ager, there are a few common habits researchers have noted among this set. Super-agers are physically active. They challenge themselves mentally and embrace stepping outside of their comfort zones to learn new things, which stimulates and engages the brain in a variety of ways. They also report strong relationships with others and tend to have excellent communication and social awareness skills.
Yoga is one of the most popular forms of exercise practiced by adults in the United States. Due to its relatively low-impact and highly modifiable nature, it is an excellent form of exercise for individuals with varying levels of experience, ability and mobility; it is quite suitable for the aging population. Compared to more traditional forms of exercise, yoga purposefully incorporates more elements of mindfulness and meditation, thus making it both a physical and mental endeavor. The combination of movement, rhythmic breath and meditative qualities offers practitioners a holistic, mind-body experience.
Recently, the breathwork and meditation associated with yoga have garnered attention from neuroscientists investigating ways to stave off dementia.
Regardless of the style of yoga one practices, it offers many layers of challenge, both physical and mental. Long-held poses challenge participants to find stillness in body and mind; vigorous, fast-paced practices require focused concentration and muscular endurance. Yoga provides an opportunity to lean into the growth and development that is available outside of one’s comfort zone.
Dance, Yoga and Neuroplasticity
A major study from the Albert Einstein Institute measured mental acuity in adults 75 years and older over a 21-year period by monitoring rates of dementia. The researchers were curious to see if any specific physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced brain functioning and were surprised to find that almost none of the physical activities in which the senior citizens participated offered protection against the loss of cognitive function. However, there was one important exception. Seniors who danced frequently showed a significantly reduced risk of dementia. Researchers theorized that dancing requires greater neuroplasticity; the brain rewires itself with new neural pathways in order to learn choreography. The more complexity people introduce to their minds, the healthier the brain remains over time, and the more likely they are to achieve super-ager status. Working through the step sequences of a dance routine requires greater brain power than other forms of exercise. Dancing enhances several important brain functions simultaneously as participants rely on motor skills, memory, touch, listening and emotion to move through choreographed numbers.
The sequencing in yoga evokes a similar effect on neural connectivity in the brain. Yoga requires practitioners to tap into several elements of cognition at once—kinesthetic, rational, emotional and often musical. Like dance choreography, yoga sequencing can be simple or complex; it can be predictable or unpredictable. Some forms of yoga invite students to flow freely to the rhythm of their breath, requiring split-second decision-making about where to go next in the sequence. These components help create new ways of thinking and lead to greater neuroplasticity.
In fact, yoga has gained traction as an area of interest in the research of combating neurodegenerative disease and as a vehicle for super-aging. In addition to the neuroplasticity benefits, researchers hypothesize that yoga’s combination of breathwork, meditation and physical proprioception—the body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location—supports memory, concentration, organization, attention, impulse control, decision-making and flexible thinking.
More Benefits for the Brain
Several studies examining the brains of yoga practitioners, including many over the age of 60, show that the practice can change the brain’s structure, encouraging the development of new connections. It strengthens areas of the brain that play a key role in memory, attention, thought and language. These are the same areas of the brain that contribute to the phenomenon of super-aging.
Yoga classes don’t just offer the brain-boosting benefits conducive to super-aging; they also provide a rich environment for cultivating and nurturing social bonds. Given the importance researchers place on the link between super-agers and strong relationships, activities that bring people together and foster a sense of community are recommended. Studies show that synchronized movements, like those that often occur in yoga classes, enhance feelings of connection among participants. Barbara Frederickson, a positive psychology researcher, notes, “When people move together as one orchestrated unit, they later report that they experienced an embodied sense of rapport with each other—they say they felt alive and connected, with a mutual sense of warmth and trust.”
Many yoga practitioners also experience enhanced interpersonal relationships as a result of the compassion, nonreactivity, kindness, patience and acceptance fostered by the practice. The self-awareness and presence that are cultivated in a yoga practice also facilitate interpersonal bonding, which can lead to deeper feelings of connection and belonging.
Yoga offers participants of any age a space to be physically active, take on new challenges, leave their comfort zones and stimulate their brains while engaging socially within a community of like-minded people. The practice taps into each of the major categories associated with the phenomenon of super-agers as it provides opportunities to learn, grow and connect. ❧
Mila Burgess, E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected].