As the most common form of dementia and affecting over 55 million people globally, Alzheimer’s disease is a global health issue. As researchers work around the clock to find a cure for the condition, others are examining ways in which one can reduce their risk of developing the neurodegenerative disease. While many studies showcase how changes in diet and physical fitness levels can help, a recent study has taken a novel approach, sharing how breathing exercises could reduce people’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
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Breathing for Alzheimer’s Disease
For optimum health, our bodies need to keep our nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic) in balance, but external stressors can disrupt this. One manner in which this happens is when our heart rate becomes accelerated, and this in turn throws our nervous system out of whack.
So, what does this have to do with Alzheimer’s disease?
Well, the development of Alzheimer’s disease has been linked to the accumulation of beta-amyloid peptides, and the disruption of the nervous system creates a conducive environment for this. As such, researchers set out to determine if breathing exercises, which can influence heart rate and maintain the nervous system, may serve to reduce the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
For the study, led by USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology Professor Mara Mather, 108 participants, half of whom were aged 18 to 30 and the other half aged 55 to 80. The participants were equipped with heart monitors on their ears that were connected to laptops in front of them.
Half the participants either listened to calming music or thought of calming images, while the other half were asked to inhale for a count of five, then exhale for a count of five. They did this for 20 minutes, twice a day, for four weeks. During the breathing exercise, participants paced their breathing to match a pacer on their laptops. When a square rose, they inhaled, and when it dropped, they exhaled, and their heart rates rose during the inhale and dropped during the exhalation.
Professor Mara Mather and her team completed blood tests before the start of the breathing exercises and again after four weeks, looking at two particular peptides, amyloid 40 and 42, as these two peptides are considered hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Do breathing exercises reduce Alzheimer’s?
“Regularly practicing slow-paced breathing via HRV biofeedback may be a low-cost and low-risk way to reduce plasma Aβ levels and to keep them low throughout adulthood.”
Per the study’s findings, published in Nature Journal, breathing exercises were associated with a decrease in amyloid-beta peptides in the bloodstream by the end of the four-week period in both younger and older participants.
As innovative as this study is, it has a lot of limitations and more research will be needed to confirm the findings. Nonetheless, the study has opened the door for more discussion into how alternative behavioral interventions may protect against Alzheimer’s.
Breathwork for your longevity
Now, while we still need to confirm the benefits of breathing exercises on the risk of Alzheimer’s, that doesn’t mean that breathing work does not have benefits for your overall well-being.
The benefits of breathwork include improved mental health and focus, a decrease in addictive habits, and better quality of life.
Here are two easy breathing exercises that you can do when you just need a breather:
1. Belly Breathing Exercise
This is a basic breathing exercise that will help you relax whenever you feel stressed or anxious.
- Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
- Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
- Take a deep breath through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
- Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
- Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
- Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.
- Try doing this exercise three or four times a day for up to 10 minutes.
2. Feeling Safe: Breathing Awareness
Created by Dr. Ela Manga, a medical doctor with a special interest in mind-body medicine, energy management, and burnout, this breathing technique focuses on building self-awareness and mental strength.
- Take a few moments to settle into a comfortable position.
- If you are sitting in your chair, sit back without slouching, relax your neck and shoulders, uncross your legs, and place your hands on your lap with your palms facing upwards.
- Begin with a soft exhale, letting go of any stress, tension, or worry.
- Do this again, this time relaxing the back of your neck and shoulders, and if you feel comfortable you can close your eyes
- Breathe normally without changing or controlling your breath. Simply notice that you are breathing and feeling the breath in your nostrils.
- See if you notice that as you inhale the air feels cooler in your nostrils and that as you exhale, it feels warmer.
- Still staying with natural breathing, move your attention to your belly. Feel how your belly rises and falls as you inhale and exhale.
- See if you can hold your attention here, one breath at a time.
- As you start to notice the breath, you might notice where you are holding tension in the body. Just feel like you are relaxing in those parts.
- Sometimes you might feel feelings coming up, just let them come to the surface, and come back to the breath.
- Now, on your own, just practice feeling the breath and practice coming back when the mind wanders.
- When you are ready, slowly come back and open your eyes, still keeping the feeling of peace with you and knowing that the feeling is always there right inside you and that you can connect to it with your breath.
- Try to practice every morning for 5 minutes, gradually building up to 15-20 minutes.
Want to know more?
While Alzheimer’s disease can affect absolutely anyone, women are at a higher risk of developing it during their lifetime, so why is Alzheimer’s more prevalent in women?
MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash
Gu, L., & Guo, Z. (2013). Alzheimer’s Aβ42 and Aβ40 peptides form interlaced amyloid fibrils. Journal of neurochemistry, 126(3), 305–311. doi.org/10.1111/jnc.12202
Min, J., Rouanet, J., Martini, A.C. et al. Modulating heart rate oscillation affects plasma amyloid beta and tau levels in younger and older adults. Sci Rep 13, 3967 (2023). doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-30167-0