Caregivers for Alzheimer’s Victims Find Yoga Improves Life, Slows Cellular Aging
Five million in U.S. care for people with dementia; stress puts them at high risk of depression
March 13, 2012 - A
new study out of UCLA suggests that using yoga to engage in very brief, simple daily meditation can lead to improved cognitive functioning and
lower levels of depression for caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease victims.
For every individual who's a victim of Alzheimer's - some 5.4 million persons in the United States alone - there's a
related victim: the caregiver. Spouse, son, daughter, other relative or friend, the loneliness, exhaustion, fear and most of all stress and
depression takes a toll.
Dr. Helen Lavretsky, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and
colleagues report a further benefit as well: a reduction in stress-induced cellular aging.
As the U.S. population continues to age over the next two decades, the prevalence of dementia and the number of family
caregivers who provide support to these loved ones will increase dramatically. Currently, at least five million Americans provide care for
someone with dementia. The detrimental burden on them, in terms of their own lives, can be severe.
For example, says Lavretsky, who also directs UCLA's Late-Life Depression, Stress and Wellness Research Program, "We know
that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression. On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical
depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent.
“Caregivers are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress." What's more, many caregivers tend to
be older themselves, leading to what Lavretsky calls an "impaired resilience" to stress and an increased rate of cardiovascular disease and
While medication can improve depression, many caregivers may be opposed to the use of medication because of the
associated cost and drug side-effects. That consideration motivated Lavretsky and her colleagues to test a brief mind-body intervention for
The researchers recruited 49 family caregivers who were taking care of their relatives with dementia. Their ages ranged
from 45 to 91 years old and included 36 adult children and 13 spouses. The participants were randomized into two groups.
The meditation group was taught a brief, 12-minute yogic practice that included an ancient chanting meditation, Kirtan
Kriya, which was performed every day at the same time for eight weeks.
The other group was asked to relax in a quiet place with their eyes closed while listening to instrumental music on a
relaxation CD, also for 12 minutes every day at the same time for eight weeks.
At the end of the eight weeks the researchers found that the meditation group showed significantly lower levels of
depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning, compared with the relaxation group.
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In the meditation group, 65 percent showed a 50 percent improvement on a depression rating scale, and 52 percent of the
group showed a 50 percent improvement on a mental health score. This compared to a 31 percent depression improvement and a 19 percent mental
health improvement for the relaxation group.
The researchers also found that meditation increased telomerase activity and thus slowed cellular aging. Telomerase is an
enzyme that maintains the DNA at the ends of our chromosomes, known as telomeres. Telomeres are associated with a host of health risks and
diseases, which may be regulated in part by psychological stress.
In the absence of telomerase activity, every time our cells divide, our telomeres get shorter and shorter, until
eventually, they become so short the cells die. If high telomerase can be maintained or promoted, though, it will likely promote improvement
in telomere maintenance and immune cell longevity.
In the study, the meditation group showed a 43 percent improvement in telomerase activity compared with 3.7 percent in
the relaxation group.
"Although the relation between mental and physical health has been previously documented, the mechanistic links are
beginning to be understood at the cellular level," said Lavretsky.
"To a varying degree, many psychosocial interventions like this have been shown to enhance mental health for caregivers,"
she said. "Yet given the magnitude of the caregiver burden, it is surprising that very few interventions translate into clinical practice. The
cost of instruction and offering classes may be one factor. Our study suggests a simple, low-cost yoga program can enhance coping and quality
of life for the caregivers."
The pilot results were "striking," she said, given the improvements that were shown in mental health, cognition, and
telomerase activity over a short eight weeks at a mere 12 minutes a day.
"We found that the effects on cognitive and mental functioning and telomerase activity were specific to the Kirtan Kriya.
Because Kirtan Kriya had several elements of using chanting, mudras (finger poses) and visualization, there was a 'brain fitness' effect in
addition to stress-reduction that contributed to the overall effect of the meditation."
Lavretsky plans a follow-up study to provide further confirmation of this potential mechanism in a neuroimaging study of
The report appears in the current online edition of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Recently, UCLA launched its new Alzheimer's and Dementia Care Program, which provides comprehensive, coordinated care as
well as resources and support to patients and their caregivers. Lavretsky has incorporated yoga practice into the caregiver program.
Funding for the study was provided by the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation grant, the National Institutes
of Health, the UCLA Cousins Center at the Semel Institute, the UCLA Older Americans Independence Center Inflammatory Biology Core, and the
Bernard and Barbro Fund. Other authors of the study included P. Siddarth, N. Nazarian, N. St. Cyr, and M.R. Irwin, UCLA; E.S. Epel, J. Lin,
and E. Blackburn, University of California, San Francisco; and D.S. Khalsa, Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, Tucson, Ariz.
The UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences reports it is the home within the David Geffen School of
Medicine for faculty who are expert in the origins of and treatments for disorders of complex human behavior. It is part of the Semel
Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, a world leading, interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the
understanding of complex human behavior and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.
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