Conditions such as dementia can reduce brain function, causing memory loss and problems with decision-making and language.
However, researchers have identified certain activities which can effectively improve it.
A study by the University of Waterloo showed that just 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation a day could significantly boost cognitive ability.
Both activities have become popular in the UK in recent years.
Hatha is one of the most common styles of yoga practised in Western countries.
It involves physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation.
The study authors found yoga and meditation could help control knee-jerk emotional responses, as well as habitual thinking patterns and actions.
They also found brief sessions could increase energy levels too.
“Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain’s conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information,” said Peter Hall, associate professor at the University of Waterloo.
“These two functions might have some positive carryover effect in the near- term following the session, such that people are able to focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life.”
In the study, participants performed 25 minutes of Hatha yoga, 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and 25 minutes of quiet reading.
Following the yoga and meditation participants performed better on tasks, compared to after reading.
“This finding suggests that there may be something special about meditation – as opposed to the physical posing – that carries a lot of the cognitive benefits of yoga,” said Kimberley Luu, lead study author.
Hatha yoga was more powerful than meditation alone for improving energy levels.
“There are a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance,” said Luu.
”These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts.
“Though ultimately, it is still an open question.”