Tai Chi and its Effects on the Brain, particularly for the Elderly

I have long advocated tai chi as a form of exercise, especially for the elderly and for individuals with physical challenges that make conventional aerobic exercises difficult to perform. If you’ve never done tai chi, which is a martial art that incorporates a series of movements, known as forms, with a focus on controlled breathing. It may look like nothing much is happening, but that’s a misconception. In fact, you are actually working very hard, and the physical benefits are pronounced. Many studies have shown that practicing tai chi can also help prevent falls and improve balance in older adults, and the benefit is greatest for people who keep up a regular practice over time.

There has always been a suggestion that Tai Chi also has a beneficial effect on the brain and for maintaining mental acuity. Finally, there is a controlled study that seems to back up those claims:

Tai chi is not just a physical exercise; it’s a mental workout too! A recent study shows that practicing tai chi can significantly slow cognitive decline and protect against dementia, especially for older adults.

The study involved approximately 300 older adults, with an average age in their mid-70s, who reported experiencing a decline in their memory. All participants took a cognitive function test called the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, where a normal score ranges from 26-30. The average score at the beginning of the study was 25, indicating mild impairment.

The findings revealed that those who practiced a simplified form of tai chi called Tai Ji Quan twice a week for six months improved their cognitive test scores by 1.5 points. While it may seem like a modest increase, study author Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom emphasizes that it’s akin to giving oneself three extra years of staving off cognitive decline.

For those engaged in a more rigorous type of tai chi, known as Cognitively Enhanced Tai Ji Quan, which involves additional challenges like spelling words backward and forward during tai chi moves, the improvement was about 3 points. This translates to giving individuals an extra six years of cognitive function.

The study suggests that the memorization of tai chi movements, combined with fluid mind-body coordination, contributes to its effectiveness in preserving cognitive function. This combination of physical activity and memory engagement appears to be a winning formula.

Dr. Joseph Quinn, a neurologist not involved in the study, finds the results impressive, even though he admits not fully understanding why tai chi works so well. He speculates that the meditative component and stress reduction effect could be contributing factors.

Participants in the study expressed the meditative nature of tai chi, describing it as a practice that helps them feel grounded, release stress, and improve concentration. Beyond the cognitive benefits, tai chi has long been recognized for its impact on balance and fall prevention in older adults.

While the study predominantly involved non-Hispanic white participants with college degrees, researchers acknowledge the need for efforts to make tai chi more accessible to a broader population, especially considering the disproportionate burden of cognitive impairment among certain demographic groups.

In essence, tai chi isn’t just a series of graceful movements—it’s a dance for the mind and body, providing not only physical benefits but also a powerful defense against cognitive decline.

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