When caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s use yoga to engage in very brief, easy daily meditations, they lower levels of depression, improve cognitive functioning and reduce stress-induced cellular aging, says a new UCLA study.
Currently, at least five million Americans care for someone with dementia. Over the next two decades, the frequency of dementia and the number of family caregivers who provide support to these loved ones will increase dramatically. The extreme burden on caregivers can be severe.
“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,” said Dr. Helen Lavretsky, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Furthermore, many caregivers tend to be older themselves, leading to what Lavretsky calls an ‘impaired resilience’ to stress and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.
For the study, researchers recruited 49 caregivers who were taking care of a relative with dementia. Of them, 36 were adult children and 13 were spouses, with ages ranging from 45 to 91 years old.
The volunteers were randomly placed in one of two groups. The meditation group engaged in a brief, 12-minute yogic chanting meditation called Kirtan Kriya. This was performed every day at the same time for eight weeks. The other group relaxed in a quiet place by closing their eyes and 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 meditation group had significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning, compared with the relaxation group.
In the meditation group, 65 percent had 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.
In the relaxation group, there was 31 percent depression improvement and a 19 percent mental health improvement.
The meditation group showed a 43 percent improvement in telomerase activity (associated with cellular aging) 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, who also directs UCLA’s Late-Life Depression, Stress and Wellness Research Program.
“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,” said Lavretsky, given that improvements were witnessed in mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity over eight short weeks in only 12 minutes a day.
“We found that the effects on cognitive and mental functioning and telomerase activity were specific to the Kirtan Kriya,” she said.
“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.”