SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Practicing yoga can help prevent cognitive decline in one’s later years, so much so that a new study finds elderly yoga instructors actually have thicker and stronger brains.
Researchers in Brazil recruited a total of 42 women, half of whom were yoginis — female yogis— with at least eight years of yoga-related experience, for a study comparing MRI brain scans.
The remaining half of participants had no experience with yoga, but had a similar age profile and exercise habits. All participants were over 60 years of age.
The goal of the study was to determine whether the practice of yoga could help ward off cognitive decline in lieu of less holistic options, like medication.
MRI scans showed that yoginis had more thickness in their left prefrontal cortex than non-yoginis, which would imply that they had heightened abilities in certain key cognitive functions, such as attention and memory.
While previous studies have linked short-term benefits to the practice of yoga—like improved attention, awareness, and memory— this inquiry is the first to prove that there are also long-term advantages.
To be sure, the researchers controlled for other factors that could have skewed the results, including variance in mood and differing levels of education between participants.
As for why yoga is so effective, it’s rather simple.
“In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training,” says researcher Elisa Kozasa in a news release. “Like any contemplative practice, yoga has a cognitive component in which attention and concentration are important.”
Still, the jury is out on whether yoga-induced brain changes actually affect cognitive performance, or if those attracted to yoga are simply more likely to start with a favorable brain structure.
“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 Rui Afonso, another researcher. “This can only be confirmed by studying people for a few years from the time they start yoga.”
The study’s findings were published last month in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.