(dailyRx News) You've seen them in parks or in films: rows of older men and women moving through the slow, graceful movements of tai chi. And it may be more than their bodies that they are improving.
A recent study found that Chinese seniors who practiced tai chi three times a week performed better on memory and thinking tests.
Additionally, the study reported a physical increase in brain volume compared to three other groups with varying activities.
James Mortimer, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, led the study trial, which involved four groups of Chinese seniors.
The 120 men and women, ranging from 60 to 79 years old, were recruited in Shanghai, China. The participants were split into four groups: a tai chi group, a walking group, a social interaction group and a group which was used for comparison to the other three.
The tai chi group practiced three times a week with a local tai chi master, including 20 minutes of warm up, 20 minutes of tai chi and 10 minutes of cool down. The walking group also met three times a week to briskly walk for 30 minutes, between two 10-minute periods of warm up and cool down.
The social interaction group met for an hour three times a week to discuss a variety of topics. The fourth group was monitored by phone during the 40 weeks of the study.
Participants underwent a series of 25 neurological and cognitive tests at the start of the study, at the midway point of the study, and at the end.
The tai chi group outscored the other three groups across most of the tests, followed by the social interaction group.
The researchers found that the participants in the tai chi and social interaction groups had a small increase in their overall brain volume, the walking group had a very small decline and the control group had a slightly larger (but still small) decline.
It is normal for a typical brain to gradually have small volume decreases over time for people in their 60s and 70s.
Overall, the researchers did not find any significant differences between the performances or brain volumes of the group who walked and the group who did nothing different for the study.
The background research noted that researchers have seen the development of dementia and other conditions with cognitive decline follow decreases in brain volume because nerve cells and their connections gradually die.
"The ability to reverse this trend with physical exercise and increased mental activity implies that it may be possible to delay the onset of dementia in older persons through interventions that have many physical and mental health benefits," Dr. Mortimer said.
Though this study does not prove that tai chi can do that reversal, the results of the study provide some evidence that practicing the ancient movement art could have a similar effect to aerobic exercise in helping to slow the deterioration of the brain.
One area that requires more research is the question about whether tai chi and similar exercises can also provide protective benefits against developing Alzheimer's disease.
The study was published June 19 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. The research was funded by a grant from the Johnnie B. Byrd, Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute. The researchers reported no conflicts of interest or disclosures.