Health Issues Affecting Seniors & How Yoga Helps
Vanda Scaravelli took up a yoga practice in her late 40s. She once said, “There is no age to yoga.” Thank goodness for this! As a tool for physical, mental, and emotional wellness, yoga practice is quickly becoming a go-to activity for seniors, and for good reason.
With the seemingly endless pitfalls and conditions seniors tend to worry about when it comes to health, yoga proves time and again to be of benefit. This article explores some common conditions we are prone to as we age, and how yoga helps mitigate these risks.
25% of seniors over 65 (roughly 12 million) have diabetes according to the American Diabetes Association—predominantly Type II diabetes. Overtime, when the body’s blood sugar levels remain high because of poor diet and inactivity, the insulin used to help metabolize glucose and move it into cells for energy no longer works. Either the cells become insulin resistant or the body simply isn’t able to produce enough insulin needed to maintain proper blood sugar balance. This can lead to a host of problems including nerve damage, vision loss, hypertension, kidney disease, and stroke, among others.
Much of Type II Diabetes cases are potentially reversible if not preventable with diet and exercise. Yoga practice generates enough low-impact physical activity to help seniors burn calories and exercise their heart and other muscles, while putting healthy stress on bones and joints, which also often weaken as we age. In addition, the mind-body awareness component of yoga practice may make practitioners more body aware and sensitive to the needs of their physical and mental health.
Roughly 1 in 10 seniors over 65 will develop Alzheimer’s, with that number doubling for folks over 80. A form of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a progressive and degenerative disease where the cells in the brain and the neural pathways connecting them become damaged and die off. The primary culprits for this damage include plaques and neurofibril tangles in the brain that starve cells of the nutrients they need to live. This damage leads to memory loss, confusion, agitation, difficulty with making decisions, and more debilitating behavioral symptoms.
While some younger adults under the age of 65 develop Alzheimer’s, the biggest risk factor is increasing age. Researchers are not totally clear why older adults are most afflicted by Alzheimer’s but they believe some age-related brain changes like atrophy (shrinking), inflammation, production of free radicals, and mitochondrial dysfunction might contribute to damage that leads to Alzheimer’s. There is currently no cure for reversing those developments. However, researchers have found that reinforcing brain health and strengthening cells and synapses may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Therefore, activities that exercise fine motor skills, learning new skills and languages, as well as social interaction and conversing with others are just some of the neuroprotective things older adults can do to stave off cognitive decline. Low-impact exercises like practicing yoga in a class with others and developing new social relationships with classmates can generate some of these beneficial properties.
Bone loss and low bone density afflict over half of all older adults over 50, making older adults much more susceptible to unexpected fractures. Women are at higher risk for bone loss post-menopause, in part because the natural process of aging which decreases the body’s production of estrogen (a hormone which aids in the development of bone density). In fact, women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men.
A growing body of evidence has shown that weight-bearing practices like yoga (and hiking and jogging, for example) may help stop and reverse bone loss, especially when combined with sufficient calcium intake. By “stressing” bones through weight-bearing exercise, it cues a biological process in which bone cells migrate to the areas of stress and start laying down new bone to reinforce it.
Unfortunately, the most injury-related fatalities for seniors come in the form of falling. An estimated 1 out of 4 seniors experience a fall each year, many resulting in a hospital visit with bruising, lacerations, and bone fractures. One fall can take away our ability to stay mobile (and thus exercise), to live on our own, and to remain self-sufficient. After a fall, our chances of falling again increase exponentially, which means that refining balance and coordination skills as well as strengthening flexibility and muscle tone play an important role in preventing falls.
In-home equipment like grab bars, shower stools, and railings can help make a senior’s living environment less hazardous, while the steadying poses and strengthening movements of yoga practice (even chair yoga) can improve a senior’s ability to balance and correct their body position when they feel off balance.
In addition, lengthening and strengthening the spine promotes better posture and can help alleviate muscle tension and joint tightness that affects our ability to walk, sit, and move in general. This is where yoga becomes very helpful. Yoga styles like hatha, gentle, chair and restorative are all designed to move slowly and mindfully from one position to the next. Most practices are designed to lengthen the muscles and skeleton in all directions, and help establish new strength and patterns of posture.
Anxiety and Depression
Losing the ability to drive or experiencing mobility issues that require a walker or other aid can leave seniors stripped of their sense of independence and confidence. Pile on top of that a chronic condition (almost 90% of adults over 65 have at least one chronic illness according to AARP) which requires care, as well as a tendency to become isolated socially, and you have a recipe for anxiety and depression.
The meditation component of yoga, as well as the opportunity for it to be practiced in a group or class setting with others, make yoga a prime candidate for alleviating stress and feelings of anxiety and depression. Hatha yoga practices designed to align and calm the body have been shown to help control your body’s stress response as well as boost mood and feelings of positivity.
Pilgrimage Yoga Online is an online yoga and meditation studio and resource center. We have hundreds of videos with plenty of styles suitable for seniors, including chair yoga, gentle yoga, and hatha yoga. Sign-up for our 10-day free trial today.
Joe Fleming is the President at ViveHealth.com. Interested in all things related to living a healthy lifestyle, he enjoys sharing and expressing his passion through writing. Working to motivate others and defeat aging stereotypes, Joe uses his writing to help all people overcome the obstacles of life. Covering topics that range from physical health, wellness, and aging all the way to social, news, and inspirational pieces…The goal is to help others “rebel against age”.