- A new study finds breath work may help decrease the risk of dementia.
- Participants took part in simple breathing exercises twice a day for four weeks.
- At the end of the study, researchers found lower levels of key proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease in their blood.
Simple breathing exercises or breath work is a practice associated with stress reduction — yoga, meditation, and simply bringing balance to the body are all areas where these exercises are useful. But new research is showing that breath work may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, conducted at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and published in Scientific Reports, shows evidence that adults, both old and young, may be able to reduce factors that contribute to the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“This is one of the first studies looking into whether breathing exercises could change levels of the protein amyloid, a hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Susan Kohlhaas, executive director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “The researchers found that breathing techniques that lowered heart rate also seem to reduce the accumulation of amyloid and tau as measured in the blood.”
How the study measured the effects of breathwork
The study asked 108 participants, half between ages 18 to 30 and half between 55 to 80, to inhale for a count of five, then exhale for a count of five for 20 minutes, twice a day, for four weeks. All the participants were hooked up to a heart monitor. Half the group was told to think of calming things, while the other group was told to pace their breathing in rhythm with a pacer.
The breathing exercises had an effect on the heart rate of the volunteers. The heart rate variability increased during each exercise. The breathing exercises were associated with a drop in the levels of amyloid-beta peptides and tau protein circulating in the bloodstreams of study participants over the four-week period.
This is key because amyloid beta peptides and an abnormal form of tau proteins are thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
If amyloid beta peptides build up to form plaque in the brain, these plaques can result in damage that may result in Alzheimer’s disease. There is no cure for the disease and it remains the most common form of dementia.
The way we breathe affects our heart rate, which directly affects the nervous system and the way the brain produces and clears proteins.
Accumulation of amyloid-beta peptides, particularly amyloid beta 40 and 42, are thought to contribute to the cognitive degeneration of the brain as part of Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows that healthy adults that do not yet have signs of amyloid accumulation in the brain, but do have amyloid beta 40 and 42 in the blood, have a greater risk of later developing Alzheimer’s.
“A few things make this a strong study. It seems to be really well focused and it brings in a specific intervention,” said Dr. Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist and researcher at NYU Langone Health and chief medical officer at Isaac Health in New York. “It has a good control group, and it looks at biomarkers associated with vulnerability with cognitive decline with Alzheimer’s. It’s an inexpensive intervention — it’s straightforward and something that everyone can engage in, which makes it powerful.”
Breathwork and the brain
“The study authors speculate that there are a few different mechanisms by which altering breathing patterns could impact the accumulation of Alzheimer’s proteins in the brain, but more work is needed to figure out what specific mechanisms are involved and how they influence overall risk of dementia,” said Kohlhaas. “This research suggests that a system called the noradrenergic pathway, involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response, could be involved but more investigation is needed here.”
The reason for why the peptides decrease when heart rate variation increases, however, is still left to be determined. The study suggests that the decrease in amyloid beta is because of decreased production. But more research has to be done in order to gain more insight as to what this research means and how it can be applied with the risk management of Alzheimer’s.
Larger studies could help give clarity
“Whilst this study is interesting, there is more to be done before we can draw firm conclusions about how it may benefit people in the long run,” said Kohlhaas.
First, this study was done with a small number of people. It would have to be reproduced in larger scale studies to look for signs of efficacy.
“I wonder about the overall generalizability of the results,” said Salinas. “I don’t see any information about baseline stressors across race or socioeconomic factors. What I do find great about this study is that it creates motivation for larger studies or larger clinical trials with a more diverse population.”
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