Yoga for the elderly

Yoga can improve the physical and mental health of the elderly

By Dr Pooja More

Aging is an important and inevitable process. Old age is associated with multiple medical conditions, mainly due to deterioration of physiological and immune mechanisms in the body. Unhealthy lifestyle choices made by people during their youth, along with other contributing factors, may lead to chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM), cancer, obesity and arthritis. Along with psychiatric illnesses such as depression and dementia, multiple health complaints such as pain, fatigue, limited mobility and sleep problems, can bring down the overall quality of life among old people.

A study conducted by NIMHANS across old age homes showed that practicing yoga for a mere six months helped in reversing the age-related effects in the physical and mental health of the elderly. This highlights that introducing yoga, even at an old age, is beneficial to people.

Yoga as an effective line of management

Yogic practices promote healthy aging. Yoga-based interventions improve gait and balance, flexibility and mood, thereby contributing to the general health and quality of life in the elderly. Several mental and physical illnesses can be treated and kept under control by practicing yoga regularly.

Yoga improves mental health

Depression: By 2020, depression will be second most widely prevalent health condition, according to World Health Organization. Depression in the elderly is also very difficult to detect, as the symptoms may be written off as signs of aging. Studies show that the risk of developing depression in the lifetime among the elderly population is 16.5 %, with women being at a higher risk than men. A person in depression has increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A three month practice of a validated yoga module reduces the level of cortisol in persons with depression. Studies have proved that yoga therapy helps reduce anxiety, depression and improves quality of life, when compared to exercise done by women with depression.

As a lifestyle practice, yoga has been beneficial to the elderly in many ways. Brain Derived Neuro trophic Factor (BDNF) is a neuro-protective chemical which is highly active in the hippocampus. Persons with depression suffer from low level of BDNF. A study showed that practicing yogasana and pranayama for three months increased the serum BDNF concentration in persons with depression. Yoga and meditation also help prevent cognitive impairment that comes with old age, improves memory, and lead to improved cognitive performance.

Yoga improves physical health

Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM), along with cardiovascular disease, is a major metabolic syndrome in many countries including India. An eight-week yoga intervention for the elderly resulted in greater weight loss and reduction in waist circumference, when compared to walking. Thus, yoga offers a promising lifestyle intervention for lowering the risk factors of T2DM, thereby improving the person's psychological wellbeing.

Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the elderly, especially women. People with arthritis who practiced yoga regularly for several years reported to have less pain, more energy, and improved sleep. This proves that practicing yoga regularly has helped them effectively manage arthritis.

Urinary incontinence or loss of bladder control is a major cause of disability in women aged 40 and above. It is estimated that nearly one-third of women around the age of 40 experience urinary incontinence. A six-week yoga therapy program has proved to be effective and safe for urinary incontinence in women.

Before you choose to take up yoga, please note:

  1. Persons who have undergone any kind of surgery in the past 6 months should avoid any kind of physical strain. However they can perform sukshma vyayama and mild pranayama under a Yoga teacher's supervision.

  2. Persons with hypertension should avoid doing asanas and pranayama fast, they should perform them slowly.

  3. Persons should not practice yoga on their own. They should learn under instruction from a yoga teacher and then try it at home.

  4. Let your yoga teacher know about your health ailments, such as joint pains, arthritis, or any other physical discomforts and ailments. The teacher will be able to suggest asanas that benefit you and avoid unnecessary stress on your body.

Dr Pooja More is a junior scientific officer at NIMHANS Integrated Centre for Yoga, Bangalore.