A little movement may do more for seniors than just help safeguard their physical health; it could also help keep dementia at bay and may even restore some cognitive function. And while exercise alone has positive implications for the brain, the benefit is greater when mental aspects are included.
Mind-body programs like yoga and tai chi – as well as multidomain programs that combine exercise and cognitive training – are all effective options for seniors to protect their minds by moving their bodies.
Yoga combines poses that stretch, strengthen and improve balance with mindful breathing, meditation and chanting. Practicing yoga can help people of all ages feel relief from depression and anxiety, which is a wonderful reason for seniors and their caregivers to practice a routine together.
Yoga can also lower inflammation, which is regularly implicated in cognitive decline. According to Harvard Health, yoga can improve neuroplasticity—meaning new pathways are made that improve recall, learning and other cognitive functions.
“Yoga can reduce stress and inflammation, and improve resilience in lost or damaged genetic material, creating a more ‘fit brain,’” Doreen Cooper, a certified yoga instructor, explained to BestLife.
Like yoga, tai chi is an excellent program for seniors and their caregivers to practice together, and also combines movement with breathing and meditation. But instead of poses that are held, tai chi consists of postures meant to flow seamlessly from one to the next.
Tai chi has been linked with decreased stress, anxiety and depression—all of which are important for cognitive health and staving off dementia. A review of the literature found that practicing tai chi had a moderate effect on memory, attention and processing speeds among seniors with cognitive impairment compared to no interventions. There was also a small but notable effect compared to other interventions, such as other types of exercise, playing abstract strategy games (e.g., mahjong) and cognitive behavioral therapy. The results were more pronounced in healthy seniors who were not diagnosed with dementia or experiencing cognitive decline.
While mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi are effective, research suggests completing physical and cognitive tasks simultaneously may have a more pronounced effect. As Esther Karssemeijer, PhD told Next Avenue: “There have been a lot of studies on the topic, and they’ve found that combined training can enhance cognitive function, possibly to a larger extent than exercise alone, as physical and cognitive activities may have positive synergistic effects.”
So, what does that mean in practice? It’s as simple as combining easy exercises with a series of math equations or word puzzles that stimulate the brain. It can be done on a treadmill or exercise bike for those who are physically able, or even as a part of a series of arm and/or leg movements made while seated. The important thing is to use different parts of the brain to complete a “dual task” by moving the body at the same time it’s engaged in solving a problem or recalling an answer. The activity itself isn’t as important as variety and engagement.
It’s as simple as combining easy exercises with a series of math equations or word puzzles that stimulate the brain.
This multidomain method can also combine other interventions like dietary supplements, music, education and socialization with movement and cognitive training for a more holistic approach. Additional research is needed to know just how effective different combinations of interventions are, but there is enough evidence showing the benefit of individual interventions that there’s likely value to adding them to a routine aimed at slowing cognitive decline even without more definitive research. Music, for example, has been linked with improved memory and decreased inflammation—important for preventing and slowing dementia and Alzheimer’s. In this case, background music could set a relaxing mood during yoga or to energize the body during a “dual task” routine.
Finding a movement program for seniors
There’s a growing interest in products and platforms that can help seniors access movement programs for the purpose of preserving and recovering cognition. Together Senior Health, a digital therapeutics firm, offers a resource called “Moving Together” that seeks to assist those with dementia and Alzheimer’s through movement therapy aimed at maintaining independence for seniors.
While the firm works with Medicare plans to assist members, private options are available as well. One such option is a subscription streaming service called Cardiomelon that offers half-hour routines that match physical exercise with math and language exercises. Another is iPACES, which pairs with any tablet and stationary bike in what it calls a “neuro-exergame.” Users are faced with making decisions about routes as they complete a series of errands, and their recall is tested as they must find their way back at the end.
With 10 million new dementia diagnoses every year, finding effective ways to prevent cognitive decline is imperative. While movement therapy cannot stop cognitive decline altogether, it can slow it—which is why it’s important to start sooner rather than later.