Yoga sessions can help with cognition and memory in older women at risk of Alzheimer's disease, possibly helping reduce the number of contributing factors and slow down the onset of symptoms.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) enlisted the help of 79 women over the age of 50 who potentially had a variant gene that put them at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's, a gene also associated with increase blood pressure, heart rate, and abnormal blood vessels in the brain.

Women in the study self-reported cognitive decline, and were either currently on medication for cholesterol or high blood pressure , had diabetes, or have recently experienced a heart attack.

The volunteers were put into two groups for 12 weeks, one following a course of Kundalini yoga training, and one following a course of standard memory training exercises. Follow up examinations showed a "significant, large effect size" boost in cognition for the group doing the yoga compared with those doing memory exercises.

"These results suggest clinical and biological benefits to Kundalini yoga for subjective cognitive decline, linking changes in cognition to the anti-inflammatory effects of yoga," write the researchers in their published paper.

The limitations of the study mean that it's a long way from saying yoga can reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's, but in this small group of volunteers it did appear to help with some early problems that Alzheimer's is linked to.

In the yoga group, the researchers saw neural pathways rebuilt, a reduced decline in brain matter, and the reversal of some biomarkers (biological flags) linked to aging and inflammation, which are all associated with Alzheimer's.

Kundalini yoga concentrates on breathing and meditation more than taking up physical poses, and in previous research, it's been shown to be effective in combating cognitive decline and boosting mood.

"That is what yoga is good for – to reduce stress, to improve brain health, subjective memory performance and reduce inflammation and improve neuroplasticity," says psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky, from UCLA.

Part of the problem in preventing and curing Alzheimer's is that we're still not sure exactly what causes it. The good news is that scientists are continually closing in on some answers, and have found multiple conditions – such as depression – that are closely linked to the disease.

Figuring out how to reduce Alzheimer's risk could gives us more clues about how it's being triggered, and this latest research shows that the beneficial effects of yoga are worth exploring.

As for choosing between yoga or memory exercises as ways of keeping sharp in old age, why not both? The researchers note that the memory-training exercises did result in improved recall, as intended.

"Yoga has this anti-inflammatory, stress-reducing, anti-aging neuroplastic brain effect which would be complementary to memory training," says Lavretsky.

"Ideally, people should do both because they do train different parts of the brain and have different overall health effects."

The research has been published in Translational Psychiatry.