Learning that you or a loved one has received a dementia diagnosis is sure to shock, upset and frustrate. While there’s currently no cure for dementia, there are some therapies and lifestyle choices that may slow the symptoms of the illness. These include eating a healthy and balanced diet, drinking less alcohol, doing brain-training exercises like puzzles and crosswords, and getting gentle exercise.
In addition to reducing an individual’s cognitive function, dementia also affects our mental health and physical capabilities. Individuals may experience challenges with their balance and strength alongside encroaching feelings of stress and depression.
Forms of gentle exercise — like swimming, gardening, and walking — can help those living with dementia in its early to middle stages maintain their balance, strength, and flexibility. Gentle exercise can also reduce feelings of stress while increasing the individual’s potential for a better night’s sleep. So much so, professional and highly qualified dementia caregivers will often encourage and assist their clients in trying low-impact exercises — like yoga, or chair yoga.
It’s common for community centers to offer yoga, especially for senior communities. If this isn’t an option, yoga at home is absolutely doable. Here’s how yoga can help those living with dementia.
Yoga Can Reduce Stress
Individuals living with dementia have been found to have higher levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) compared to those without the disease.
When our bodies respond to stress, our adrenal glands release a burst of hormones — including cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can damage the hippocampus, which is the area of our brain responsible for memory and learning. Yoga has been shown to lower an individuals levels of cortisol.
A relaxing yoga session can also release endorphins — our bodies’ chemical response to pleasure — which block the awareness of pain, increasing the body’s resilience and tolerance for pain.
A dementia diagnosis is — understandably — stress-inducing. As taught in yoga, meditation, and tai chi, relaxation techniques can teach individuals how to cope and manage their emotional responses during moments of stress, anger, and frustration.
Yoga Can Help with Balance
A 2014 study of nine individuals living with middle to late-stage Alzheimer’s (a type of dementia) tested whether an eight-week Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga Program was beneficial for seniors. The study found that 100% of participants experienced a significant increase in their balance throughout the program.
Further, participants’ balance continued to improve for up to one month following the program’s completion.
Yoga Improves Body Awareness
Yoga is widely known to help individuals increase their core strength and flexibility. Boosting a person’s strength, flexibility and their range of motion while heightening their body awareness can help prevent slips, trips, and falls. Such understandings and body conditioning also allow individuals to retain their ability to complete Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) — which involve mainly self-care routines — for as long as possible.
In addition to the above benefits of yoga, yoga can improve a person’s potential for restful, restorative sleep. Up to 25% of individuals with mild to middling dementia experience sleep disturbances. Yoga can increase the hours spent asleep, the quality of sleep and feelings of peacefulness following a good night of rest.
If you or someone you know is living with a dementia diagnosis and you would like to explore yoga as a form of treatment, connect with your local community centers and yoga studios to see if they offer senior-specific or dementia-specific yoga. Alternatively, chat with an in-home care provider to see how they can help, or look online for ‘seniors’ yoga’ and ‘chair-yoga’ instructional videos.