You May Be Able to Lower Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Through Breathing Exercises, According to Researchers

This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal

Researchers have found that intentionally slowing your breathing rate for 20 to 40 minutes a day may reduce the production of peptides related to Alzheimer’s disease. The study, published earlier this year in Scientific Reports, is believed to be the first to explore the implications of behavior change on the neurodegenerative disease.

Researchers at the University of Southern California, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of California, Los Angeles, theorized that a shift in nervous system responsiveness commonly associated with older age may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.

As we age, it’s common to experience an increase in our high-stress state (sympathetic activity) and a decrease in our relaxation state (parasympathetic nervous system activity). The study analyzed whether this decline could be associated with Alzheimer’s by tracking heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of how much fluctuation we experience in the time between heartbeats. HRV is controlled by the autonomic nervous system.

In healthy (and often young) individuals, a high HRV can be an indicator of an adaptable body. For example, when you enter into “fight-or-flight” mode during a stressful situation and then quickly return to a calm state, that’s an indication of a high HRV. The researchers tested whether slowing the breath, which is known to affect HRV, also influenced markers for Alzheimer’s.

How Researchers Conducted the Study

Researchers divided the 162 participants into two groups. The report includes data from the 54 younger and 54 older participants who gave blood samples at the study’s pre- and post- interventions.

The first group was asked to maximize their heart rate oscillations through slow breathing exercises. Over the course of the four-week study, members of this group practiced one of five breathing cycles, each between 9 to 13 seconds per breath. (For example, a 12-second cycle inhale would include a six-second inhalation and a 6-second exhalation.)

The second group was tasked with lowering their heart rate oscillations through their own “self-generated” de-stressing strategies. Suggested approaches included imaging nature scenes, listening to soothing sounds, or closing their eyes.

Both groups were instructed to complete at least one 20-minute session a day of exercises. Each group registered realtime data during the sessions through biofeedback measurements. Researchers documented the participants’ baseline data in the two weeks prior to the study and also noted their measurements for two weeks following the study.

What the Alzheimer’s Study Suggests

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that the group which practiced the slow breathing exercises experienced significantly lower levels of two peptides--40 and 42--that are associated with Alzheimer’s. In contrast, the other group experienced higher levels of those two peptides.

The authors of the study suggest that the research provides “novel data” supporting a behavioral intervention that reduces amyloid-beta peptides levels. If additional studies replicate the results, the slow breathing method could present an accessible way to lessen the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or slow its course, which would be truly revolutionary.

For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.