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How yoga can help the elderly

January 03, 2020 11:53 IST
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'They were less stressed.'
'Their sleep quality improved as did their social interactions.'

Yoga for the elderly

Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

By 2050, there will be more people above the age of 60 than those below the age of 15 years in India.

With this comes the attendant problems associated with old age and one disease that is going to attack India in a big way is dementia.

Keeping this in mind, a study on the effects of yoga on people suffering from dementia, conducted by the departments of integrative medicine and modern psychiatry at NIMHANS assumes significance.

After completing his MBBS at the Government Medical College, Nagpur, Dr Hemant Bhargav felt modern medicine was reaching a saturation point in curing many disorders and that "the time has come to add something more, something from our traditional system". He decided to do an MD, followed by a PhD, in yoga and rehabilitation.

"If the meditative yoga programme we had developed for the elderly was practised for one hour every day, five days in a week for six months, it could lead to an improvement in the overall quality of life of the elderly," Dr Bhargav, who is now an assistant professor at the department of integrative medicine at NIMHANS, tells Shobha Warrier/ in the first of a two-part interview.


There was a global conference on dementia recently in Kochi where you spoke about using yoga to treat dementia. When did you find that yoga can help fight dementia?

At the NIMHANS's department of integrative medicine, we study the best of traditional systems like yoga and Ayurveda, and we integrate this with modern psychiatry.

The yoga centre has been functioning for the last 10 years and we have been offering clinical services to psychiatric patients.

In 2010-2012, we did a community-based study on the effects of yoga on elderly people -- not people with dementia -- to find out whether yoga helped the elderly.

We published the outcome of the study in 2013.

Was there any particular reason why you decided to do this study on elderly people?

It was basically a precursor to understand whether yoga would have any effect on people with dementia.

Normally, when you do a clinical study, you initially try to find out whether it will have any effect on normal citizens before trying it on the clinical population.

If yoga did not improve memory in normal elderly people, it would definitely not have any effect on those suffering from Alzheimer's.

Generally, the elderly have health problems like hypertension, diabetes, body pain, difficulty in hearing and seeing. So yoga programmes have to be specially designed for this population.

We wanted to first validate the feasibility of the yoga module we have designed with the help of experts on the elderly, before doing the randomised controlled trial.

By yoga, do you mean just asanas or a combination of yogasanas, pranayama and meditation?

It is a combination of the three, designed specifically for the elderly.

The module is based on the practices which should retard the ageing process like Patanjali yoga sutra, hatha yoga, etc.

We combined the results of the study and modern science evidence and showed it to 20 experts in the field of yoga and health.

Based on their suggestions, we came up with a yoga module for people with dementia.

Yoga for the elderly

Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

You said you came out with a report in 2013. What were the results of the study conducted on the elderly?

We had published three papers at that time in the International Journal of Psychiatry and also in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

The study concluded that if the meditative yoga programme we had developed for the elderly was practised for one hour every day, five days in a week for six months, it could lead to an improvement in the overall quality of life of the elderly.

You mean physically and mentally?

Yes, taking into consideration the WHO standard of quality of life -- the physical, social and mental quality of life improved for the elderly.

They were able to manage their emotions better too.

They were less stressed.

Their sleep quality improved, as did their social interactions.

That is why we said that the overall quality of life improved.

We also found that there was an improvement in their memory.

We did MRI scans on a small sub-sect of people and measured the area of hippocampus in the brain, which shrinks with age, more so in people with dementia and Alzheimer's.

We found that, in people who did yoga for six months, the volume of the hippocampus increased slightly.

It meant that yoga not only stopped the normal ageing process of shrinking, but also reversed it; that is, the size of the hippocampus increased.

Due to just yoga?

Yes, these people had added yoga into their life style.

Several studies conducted in the US also have shown that long term meditators have thicker cortex.

Yoga involves certain kind of practices which need mind and body co-ordination and they are beneficial for the brain.

Do watch out for Part 2 of the interview next week!

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