I wonder sometimes what it will be like to be old. What I will be like. I tend to picture myself as a crazy old lady wearing very ‘loud’ (probably purple) and age-inappropriate clothing, surrounded by furry babies. Hopefully also balancing on my head.
Back in the summer, when I wasn’t quite so depressed about the state of the humanity and the state of the world more generally, including the yoga world, I speculated about the possibility that yoga could help to keep us young. Maybe balancing on my head now will ensure that I can keep balancing on my head when I’m old.
The idea came from reading about the discovery of an ageing ‘clock’ – a marker that predicts how old we really are on the basis of how much inflammation there is in our bodies. If yoga can help to lower inflammation (or at the very least, lower the expression of inflammatory markers), could it also be helping to keep this inflammation clock at a young state?
I can’t really answer this question at this point because it’s quite complicated and also, and more importantly, there isn’t any research exploring it. However, it does look like yoga may help to support a better ageing process.
Yoga to stay fit and avoid falls
There’s a saying in Greek that old people either die from falls or going to the toilet (it doesn’t really translate well but you get the idea). Falls are the enemy for the elderly – they easily lead to broken legs, broken hips and so on, which themselves lead to a general decline (especially if you have osteoporosis, which I am fully anticipating I’m going to get if my genes have a say).
There’s some research showing that yoga (and other, more physical mind–body practices like tai chi) helps to improve muscle strength, mobility and, crucially, balance (see, for example, here, here and here). However, relating back to my eternal question of ‘what’s so special about yoga?’, how much of this is special to yoga vs other physical activity is not clear to me (eg I know my mum does balance exercises to help her stop falling all the time, but not yoga).
Yoga to improve general wellbeing
There is some evidence that yoga may deliver improvements in mental health, mood and health-related quality of life – a really important marker of wellbeing that the WHO defines as:
an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns
Two systematic reviews (that I can’t access so only reporting on the abstracts) which analysed and evaluated existing research on this topic conclude that yoga enhances health-related quality of life and mental wellbeing (see here and here). There is also research showing benefits in mental health (eg anxiety and depression, for instance here).
This isn’t really surprising because there is a growing body of research showing benefits in mental health and wellbeing across populations – it just confirms that the findings apply to the elderly (by the way some of these studies define this as 60+, which seems quite young these days, what do you think?).
Yoga to maintain cognitive function
So this is pretty fascinating because if there’s one thing that terrifies me about getting old is losing my brain function; not just forgetting (which seems to be happening already), but just the ability to operate at the same level as I do now. And the potential to keep it for a little longer, or a little more intact, is reason enough to keep practicing yoga till the end.
Yoga and other mind–body practices like tai chi have been suggested to improve cognitive function, including attention, learning and memory, in adults (55+) with mild cognitive impairment or in adults with mild cognitive impairment or dementia – including delaying progression to more severe forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s in some instances.
Moreover, when compared with other behavioural interventions (eg wellness education and brain training), yoga showed the most beneficial effects in improving day-to-day memory.
Why would yoga affect cognitive function?
There are a few hypotheses on this, which might give (physical) yoga an edge to some other forms of activity. Practicing yoga, especially in a class setting, has an emphasis on the coordination of body movements, on learning movements and breathing patterns, and on imitating others. Together, these elements may lead to changes in the brain itself (eg the hippocampus). Essentially, practicing yoga forces you to keep your brain active and young.
In fact, there are some studies that have seen documented such changes; for instance, in this study, the researchers found that elderly women who had been practicing yoga and meditation for 8+ years had a thicker left prefrontal cortex than women of the same age who did not practice yoga.
The other consideration is of course the premise of my original article, ie the effects of yoga on inflammation. Given that inflammation in the brain is linked to neurodegeneration and cognitive decline (eg see here), it’s possible that yoga may help to slow this down and maintain brain function.
There may also be indirect effects that are caused by the improvements to mental wellbeing and improved sleep too, or by practicing with our yoga community.
The usual caveats apply of course
This is obviously not an exhaustive review of the research, nor a really thorough analysis (especially because, annoyingly, I can’t access half of the papers I found).
And, as ever, we have the usual problems with yoga research – small (tiny sometimes) sample sizes, poor designs and inconsistent definitions of what yoga is. Which is why I prefer to look at the reviews and metanalyses when I can.
Regardless though, I feel like we get enough of a flavour of the possible ways that yoga could help us grow old better, to grow old with a good quality of life.
It is certainly no guarantee but it can’t hurt if you practice mindfully.