Yoga may protect against memory decline in old age : Research

Doing yoga for a long time could change the structure of your brain and protect it against cognitive decline in old age, suggests new research.

When the researchers imaged elderly female yoga practitioners’ brains, they found that the “yoginis” have greater cortical thickness in the left prefrontal cortex, in brain areas associated with cognitive functions like attention and memory.

As we age, the structure and functionality of our brains change and this often leads to cognitive decline, including impaired attention or memory. One such change in the brain involves the cerebral cortex becoming thinner, which scientists have shown is correlated with cognitive decline.

So, how can we slow or reverse these changes?

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggest that the answer could lie in contemplative practices like yoga. “In the same way as muscles, the brain develops through training,” explained one of the researchers, Elisa Kozasa of Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Sao Paulo, Brazil, involved in the study.

“Like any contemplative practice, yoga has a cognitive component in which attention and concentration are important,” Kozasa added.

The research team wanted to see if elderly long-term yoga practitioners had any differences in terms of brain structure compared with healthy elderly people who had never practiced yoga.

They recruited a small group of female yoga practitioners (also known as yoginis) who had practiced yoga at least twice a week for a minimum of eight years, although the group had an average of nearly 15 years of yoga practice.

The researchers compared the yoginis with another group of healthy women who had never practiced yoga, meditation or any other contemplative practices, but who were well-matched to the yoginis in terms of their age (all the participants were 60 or over) and levels of physical activity.

The researchers scanned the participants’ brains using magnetic resonance imaging to see if there were any differences in brain structure.

“We found greater thickness in the left prefrontal cortex in the yoginis, in brain regions associated with cognitive functions such as attention and memory,” Rui Afonso from Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Sao Paulo added.

Mental health, rather than physical, determines well being in old age, finds study

A positive frame of mind, it seems, is even more important than the right diet. New European research suggests that psychosocial factors such as anxiety and depression may have an even larger impact on well-being in later life than physical health.

The study, carried out by researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich (TUM), looked at data from 3,602 participants with an average age of 73.

The participants’ levels of subjective well-being were measured by a questionnaire from the World Health Organisation with the results split into two categories, either a ‘high’ level of well-being (score > 50) or ‘low’ (score ≤ 50). As the impact of stress on emotional well-being had not really been investigated before, the team chose explicitly to look at the effects of anxiety, depression and sleep disorders in this new research.

Low income and sleep disorders also had a negative effect on health. (Shutterstock)

The results showed that there was a high level of self-reported well-being in the majority (79%) of the respondents, with the average scores of well-being also above the threshold set by the WHO. However, some of the findings were less positive, with the team finding that in the ‘low’ group there was a particularly high number of women, about 24% compared to 18% for men.

When looking at the factors that affected the levels of well-being, the team found that it was mainly psychosocial factors – in particular depression and anxiety disorders – which had the strongest effect.

Low income and sleep disorders also had a negative effect, and, among women, living alone also significantly increased the probability of a low level of well-being. However, perhaps surprisingly, poor physical health, for example, low physical activity, appeared to have little effect.

“Aging itself is not inevitably associated with a decline in mood and quality of life,” said professor Karl-Heinz Ladwig, commenting on the results. “It is rather the case that psychosocial factors such as depression or anxiety impair subjective well-being,” he explained.

“The findings of the current study clearly demonstrate that appropriate services and interventions can play a major role for older people, especially for older women living on their own,” Ladwig said. “And this is all the more important, given that we know that high levels of subjective well-being are linked to a lower mortality risk.”

The results can be found published online in the journal BMC Geriatrics.

Irani Cafes in Mumbai: From Bun Maska to Keema Pao and Old World Charm

Irani Cafes in Mumbai: From Bun Maska to Keema Pao and Old World Charm

Pretty much everyone knows about Mumbai’s iconic Irani cafés: how their owners came to Mumbai from Iran, lured by the promise of financial growth; how they took over the corner locations that were considered inauspicious by local businessmen; how they have a lengthy list of dos and don’ts chalked onto boards (Do not comb hair at the table, do not place feet on chairs, etc) that were lovingly satirised in Nissim Ezekiel’s wonderful poem Irani Restaurant Instructions; the ubiquitous chai and bun maska on the menu; the old-world décor; and sadly, how, in spite of a spate of documentaries and articles about them, they are still dwindling.

The Irani café was born in Mumbai at a particularly opportune time. In Frank F Conlon’s essay, Dining Out in Bombay, available in the anthology Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World, edited by Carol Appadurai Breckenridge, we learn that Mumbai was in a state of flux at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. “Bombay city was recovering from the socio-economic dislocations brought on by the plague outbreaks of 1896 and subsequent years,” writes Conlon. “Economic activity and population both were increasing…Furthermore, the Bombay Improvement Trust’s urban renewal activities were cutting new roads through the congested parts of the city, creating new commercial frontages where Irani shopkeepers could find profitable opportunities”.


The cafés became harbingers of social change, bringing together people of all religions, classes and denominations who congregated there for a cup of tea. Muslim-owned cafés were born in areas where Muslims congregated, and Zoroastrian-owned cafés came up where Hindus and Parsis tended to dominate, but both advertised that people of all religions were welcome, in other words, a ‘cosmopolitan’ environment. This was likely the origin of the name of Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Stores, an Irani café in Khetwadi run by (a woman! Surprise!) Mrs. Freny Irani.


Irani cafés helped to alter the social scene in other ways too. Their Family Rooms were designed to draw in women from genteel families; they could dine there discreetly, hidden behind wooden or opaque glass screens (the sign hangs still at some Irani cafes) or on upper levels. A rare thing for the time, since respectable ladies were not encouraged to dine in public. At Regal Restaurant in Byculla, a grandiose sign announces ‘Special Accommodation for families at Upstairs’ at the foot of a rickety flight of steps. But it is only at B Merwan that we find that the rule still largely applies – ladies, families, children are often gently ushered into its ‘Special Room for Ladies and Family’.


The History of Irani Cafes


Most Irani cafés started out as provision stores, their shelves stacked with toothbrushes and soap, and Westernised foodstuff such as canned fish and meat, and many began life as tea shops and bun- maska purveyors. “Some, such as the Ideal Restaurant at Flora Fountain, remained faithful to that menu to the end; Behram Contractor recalls it strictly as a ‘tea and bread pudding’ place,” writes Conlon. “The A-1 on the other hand (the Bombay A-1, one of the pioneers of the Irani café scene in Mumbai that opened in Grant Road) soon became well known as a source of a distinctive Parsi cuisine including the green chutney patra fish and the rich, multi-pulse curry dhanshak. The A-1 also baked Christmas cakes that were a favourite of middle-class families of all communities.”


Often, the food at the Irani café was calibrated to please not just the local population of Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Hindus, but also the British. Cafe Military, on Medows Street, still has a menu from 1935 that offers dishes such as Boiled Tongue, Mutton Roast, and Cold Liver and Salad (“Bread and Butter, extra charges”). The name itself harks back to a time when Fort was home to a strong military presence; Cafe Military was just one amongst a sea of refreshment rooms, hotels, clothiers, etc that subsequently sprang up in the locality, to cater to the military.

How the Cafes Have Adapted


Any talk of the Irani café in Mumbai is always bound to be stained by elegy. So many have closed down; a scant 25 or so remain today. Among the ones lost to us are Bastani, which used to sit opposite the famous Kyani & Co, and was the one that inaugurated the lengthy list of instructions that have now become synonymous with the cafés. (To reflect modern times, Kyani’s has updated its list of Don’ts to include strict prohibition of the use of laptops).


Happily, others are joggling on. Some have re-calibrated themselves to appeal to a younger, broader demographic – places like Cafe Leopold that have become fixtures on tourist guides. Some, like Cafe Mocambo, have held on to some of their old world charm, but added air conditioning, fresh furnishing, and refurbished the menu to include dishes such as Kung Pao Paneer and Chinese Fries.


On the other hand, Ideal Corner, on Gunbow Street, holds on to its Parsi menu with superb daily specials (although it has integrated a scant Chinese section on to its menu). Cafe Military still has the bentwood chairs, mirrors and merry checked tablecloths so typical of an Irani cafe, but its menu has shifted to exclude the old British favourites, and includes dishes such as kheema pao and akuri.


The much-vaunted Britannia & Co – famous for its berry pulao, its warm yet eccentric proprietor Mr. Boman Kohinoor, and his love for the British royal family – doesn’t seem to have changed very much at all (except for its more recent inclusions of prawn and paneer berry pulao on its menu).


Best of all, there is the cheering fact that a brand new Irani café has opened up in Mahim – Cafe Irani Chaii. Perhaps we can hold out some hope yet.