Study finds brain improvements from practicing yoga

Also: The broad appeal and benefits of music

Music’s healing properties: Don’t worry be happy

Whether it’s singing in a choir, playing the living room piano, joining in hymns at church, or just whistling along with the radio, a new poll finds that nearly all older adults report music brings them far more than just entertainment.

Three-quarters of people age 50 to 80 say music helps them relieve stress or relax and 65% say it helps their mental health or mood, according to a new poll on healthy aging from the University of Michigan. The survey showed that 60% report they get energized or motivated by music. Those are just a few of the health-related benefits cited by older adults who answered questions about listening to and making music of all kinds. Virtually all (98%) said they benefit in at least one health-related way from engaging with music. In addition, 41% reported music is very important to them, with another 48% saying it’s somewhat important.

“Music has the power to bring joy and meaning to life. It is woven into the very fabric of existence for all of humankind,” said Dr. Joel Howell, professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School, Ann Arbor, Mich. Music also has tangible effects on a variety of health-related ailments. “We know that music is associated with positive effects on measures from blood pressure to depression,” said Dr. Howell.

The researchers asked a national sample of adults age 50 to 80 about their experiences and feelings toward listening to and making music. Many older adults reported making music with other people at least occasionally, whether by singing or playing an instrument. In all, 8% said they have sung in a choir or other organized group at least a few times in the past year. About 8% of all older adults said they play an instrument with other people at least occasionally. Interestingly, 46% of older adults reported singing at least a few times a week, and 17% said they play a musical instrument at least a few times a year.

Most respondents reported listening to music, with 85% saying they listen to it at least a few times a week, and 80% saying they’ve watched musical performances on television or the internet at least a few times in the past year. Further, 41% of participants said they had attended live musical performances in person at least a few times in the past year. The poll report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey conducted at the University of Chicago and administered online and via phone in July and August 2023 among 2,657 adults age 50 to 80.

Those who said their physical health is fair or poor, and those who say they often feel isolated, were less likely to listen to music every day. Black older adults were more likely than others to have sung in a choir in the past year, and Black and Hispanic older adults were more likely to say that music is very important to them.

“While music doesn’t come up often in older adults’ visits with their usual care providers, perhaps it should,” said poll director Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren, associate professor of internal medicine at U-M. “The power of music to connect us, improve mood and energy, or even ease pain, means it could be a powerful tool.”

Important hidden brain benefits from yoga

A new UCLA health study has found yoga may provide several benefits to cognition and memory for older women at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Yoga may help restore neural pathways, preventing brain matter decline and reversing aging. In a study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, researchers examined the comparative effects of yoga and traditional memory enhancement training on slowing cognitive decline.

Women have about twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to men due to several factors, including longer life expectancy, changes in estrogen levels during menopause, and genetics. A group of more than 60 women ages 50 and older who had self-reported memory issues and cerebrovascular risk factors were recruited for the study. The women were divided evenly into two groups. The first group participated in weekly Kundalini yoga sessions for 12 weeks while the other group underwent weekly memory enhancement training during the same time period. Participants were also provided daily homework assignments.

Kundalini yoga is a method that focuses on meditation and breathwork more so than physical poses. Memory enhancement training developed by the UCLA Longevity Center includes a variety of exercises, such as using stories to remember items on a list or organizing items on a grocery list. The exercises are designed to help preserve or improve long-term memory.

Researchers assessed the women’s cognition, subjective memory, depression and anxiety after the first 12 weeks and again 12 weeks later to determine the stability of the improvements. Blood samples were taken to test for gene expression of aging markers and for molecules associated with inflammation, which are contributing factors to Alzheimer’s disease. A handful of patients were also assessed with MRIs to study changes in brain matter.

Researchers found the yoga group participants saw several improvements not experienced by the memory enhancement training group. These included significant improvement in subjective memory complaints, prevention in brain matter declines, and increased connectivity in the hippocampus. This type of connectivity manages stress-related memories. The study also showed an improvement in the peripheral cytokines and gene expression of anti-inflammatory and anti-aging molecules.

“That is what yoga is good for, to reduce stress, to improve brain health, subjective memory performance, reduce inflammation and improve neuroplasticity,” said study lead investigator Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA psychiatrist. Among the memory enhancement training group, the main improvements were found to be in the participants’ long-term memory. Neither group saw changes in anxiety, depression, stress or resilience, though Dr. Lavretsky stated this is likely due to the fact that the participants were relatively healthy and were not depressed.

While the long-term effects of Kundalini yoga on preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s disease require further study, Dr. Lavretsky said the study demonstrates that using yoga and memory training in tandem could provide more comprehensive benefits to the cognition of older adults.

“Ideally, people should do both because they do train different parts of the brain and have different overall health effects,” said Dr. Lavretsky. “Yoga has this anti-inflammatory, stress-reducing, anti-aging neuroplastic brain effect which would be complementary to memory training.” 

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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