Imagine beating cancer, yet feeling defeated by everyday tasks, like remembering items at the grocery store or concentrating on a book. Eventually, you may grow concerned. You may also feel worried about your ability to get things done at work or at home. Why is it, you wonder, that while your body pulled through, your mind seems to be slowing down?
This is a question many cancer survivors ask themselves. Researchers are curious, too: Previously, scientists suspected that chemotherapy was the primary cause of cognitive problems, leading to the popular term “chemo brain.” This term and its use painted a somewhat discouraging picture of cognitive difficulty after cancer treatment – made all the more distressing as people cannot rewind their lives and choose to not have chemotherapy, a treatment that is often life-saving. Luckily, studies have found that the long-term impact of chemotherapy on cognition is not as striking as once thought. In fact, newer research suggests that additional factors — such as other health problems or medications — may play a role in cognitive problems for cancer survivors.
Because chemotherapy doesn’t fully explain survivors’ complaints of experiencing a cognitive slow-down, our research team wondered if other factors might contribute to this phenomenon. For example, we know that physical activity benefits cognitive function in healthy adults, and many cancer survivors have decreased activity levels. We began to wonder whether simply increasing survivors’ activity levels might improve their cognitive functioning. We decided to examine whether yoga, a light physical activity with breathing exercises and meditation — well-suited for cancer survivors experiencing pain or other physical symptoms — could help to reduce perceived cognitive complaints for those who had completed treatment.
“Those who practiced yoga attended classes twice per week for 12 weeks and were encouraged to practice at home.”
To answer this question, we examined data from a recent study on yoga, fatigue, and inflammation, which was conducted in Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser’s laboratory in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. In the study, 200 breast cancer survivors were randomly assigned to participate in yoga classes or refrain from yoga. Those who practiced yoga attended classes twice per week for 12 weeks and were encouraged to practice at home.
Before beginning their participation in the study, participants rated the extent to which they were bothered by forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and distractibility. Immediately after the 12-week period, women in both groups reported similar levels of cognitive problems. However, three months later, those women who practiced yoga reported 23 percent fewer cognitive problems compared with those who did not. Additionally, women who spent more time practicing yoga during the trial had more significant decreases in cognitive complaints than those with less practice. Although this study cannot address whether yoga would improve survivors’ performance on formal tests, improvements in perceived difficulties alone are important for quality of life.
Cancer survivors who feel confused, forgetful, or distracted, then, may benefit from giving the yoga mat — or other forms of light physical activity — a try. Sometimes, the best way to give your mind a boost is by moving the body.
Heather Derry, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at The Ohio State University and health psychology intern at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA.
This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.