Alzheimers disease, a chronic and progressive neurological disorder involving cognitive and functional disabilities, causes most cases of dementia.
Part of the insidious nature of Alzheimer’s is its calm but gradual and persistent manifestation, which tends to get worse over time.
As we best understand it, the cognitive functions of the mind take place in the brain, an organ that is not recognized as important (often not recognized at all) in ancient yogic literature, according to Patanjali’s yogic proverb, chitta vrtti nirodoha, “still fluctuating mind,” being the leitmotif of yoga. This major mammalian organ may have conditions that are far more consequential in daily life than “monkey mind”—which certainly Forms mostly arise from within – the purpose of yoga is to consciously subdue, exploit, or manifest.
Among the most common brain diseases is dementia, a group of symptoms that disrupt and disturb normal cognitive function and which are often mistakenly thought to be specifically associated with aging.
Yoga may have an important role in reducing the incidence and symptoms of dementia and its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease, known from the early twentieth century work of the German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer.
The pathophysiological process of Alzheimer’s begins to develop before mild cognitive impairment is experienced that defines its early diagnosis stage. In its pre-delusional (or preclinical) stage, symptoms include a generalized apathy, lack of attention to basic daily activities, irritability, and weak relational memory. As this mild cognitive impairment progresses, there are more problems with memory, particularly in relation to new experiences. Some have difficulties with memory, the use of written and spoken language that inhibit basic communication, along with simple tasks such as driving a car.
As the condition worsens, it may be difficult to remember even close friends and loved ones, there may be manifestations of confusion, and physical problems such as urinary incontinence may occur. These conditions may worsen in their most advanced stage, with even passing moments of clear recollection and recognition, although now entirely dependent on the care of others.
Memory loss is a major symptom of the disease.
As much has been written about the experiences of the caregiver with another’s Alzheimer’s as it has about the subjective experience of the condition.
Early signs include difficulty remembering recent conversations or events. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, memory weakens and other symptoms develop.
There is a wide range of emotions described by people with Alzheimer’s, including a growing sense of loss – the loss of everything that is most meaningful in life, starting with the feeling of losing connection with the people most dear in life, and with feelings of isolation and loneliness.
At first, one with Alzheimer’s disease may be aware of having difficulty remembering the things and organizing the thoughts. A family member or a friend may be more likely to notice how the symptoms worsen.
The worsening of the condition involves deep sadness, confusion, and anxiety, and these feelings are accompanied by fear, paranoia, and anger.
People with Alzheimers disease may:
- Repeat statements and questions over and over
- Forget appointments, or events, or conversations and don’t remember them later
- Misplace property on a regular basis, often putting them in illogical places
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Eventually forgets the names of family members and everyday objects
- Has trouble identifying objects, finding the right words to express thoughts or participating in conversation
Alzheimers Disease Known Causes
Although genetic factors appear to be important in many cases of Alzheimer’s, its causes remain largely mysterious, despite billions of dollars of research into its etiology and pathophysiology.
The most promising theories involve protein synthesis that affects neurotransmitters in ways that are described as “tangles” inside the brain, a pathology that consists of genetic markers.
There is currently research exploring many other factors, including vascular and metabolic status, diet, exercise, social interactions, and lifelong mental stimulation (ie, new learning, which are the promising fields of neuroplasticity and psychoneuroimmunology currently exploring).
How Alzheimer’s Heals
Steven Sabat provides a practical prism for looking at the complexities of the subjective experience of Alzheimer’s.
The depth of her work lies in uncovering that there can be beauty and value in the midst of even the most troubling human problems, an antidote to the stigmatized decisions that will further affect Alzheimer’s as well as their caregivers.
Although medical science is making advances in its understanding of Alzheimer’s disease in ways that may slow healing, yoga and other complementary healing modalities provide methods that may help prevent Alzheimer’s and benefit the lives of the people living Alzheimer’s today as well as their caregivers.
Healing with Yoga
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, recent research suggests that yoga and meditation may play a role in preventing and improving symptoms of the progressive disease, which is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Several recent studies claim to show promise in treatments for Alzheimer’s and yoga for their caregivers. Unfortunately, most studies are poorly designed.
Last year, the first study to suggest that memory loss could be reversed included yoga and meditation as part of a complex, 36-point therapeutic program.
Another study found that yoga and meditation can help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and their caregivers to socialize and feel better.
One of the strongest studies supports the benefits of yoga for caregivers of Alzheimer’s.
For example, a study conducted at the UCLA Longevity Center found improved functional connectivity in verbal neural performance after twelve weeks of Kundalini yoga classes and Memory Enhancement Training (MET). Whether there was specific efficacy in certain elements of yoga classes (tuning in, warm up, pranayama, kriya and meditation) or only in combination with them, and the efficacy of these techniques in conjunction with or separately from MET training, was not studied.
The study also had a very small sample size. A more promising and better-designed study of The Sit “N” Fit Chair yoga program has shown effects among older adults in improving function in several physical measures, including gait and balance. The primary limitation of this study is its very small sample size and the absence of a control group.
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- ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE AND RELATED DEMENTIAS. Basics of Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet.
- What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease? Available here: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-causes-alzheimers-disease
- Vascular Dementia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments. Available here: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/vascular-dementia
- Steven R Sabat, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: What everyone needs to know. https://doi.org/10.1177/2F1471301220969333. Oxford University Press: New York, NY, USA, 2018; 272 pp. ISBN 9780190603113.
- Res Gerontol Nurs. Jul-Aug 2014;7(4):171-7. DOI: 10.3928/19404921-20140218-01. Epub 2014 Feb 26. The effect of chair yoga in older adults with moderate and severe Alzheimer’s disease. Ruth McCaffrey, Juyoung Park, David Newman, Dyana Hagen