Improve Physical and Cognitive Function with Tai Chi

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Because Tai Chi may impact cognitive function via a diverse and potentially synergistic set of mechanistic pathways, it is plausible that it may offer benefits superior to interventions that target only single pathways (e.g., aerobic training or stress reduction alone)” – Peter Wayne


The process of aging affects every aspect of the physical and cognitive domains. Every system in the body deteriorates including motor function with a decline in strength, flexibility, and balance. Impaired balance is a particular problem as it can lead to falls. In the U.S. one third of people over 65 fall each year and 2.5 million are treated in emergency rooms for injuries produced by falls. About 1% of falls result in deaths making it the leading cause of death due to injury among the elderly. It is obviously important to investigate methods to improve balance and decrease the number of fall in the elderly.


Perhaps more troubling than the physical decline is the mental deterioration that occurs with aging. This is called age related cognitive decline and includes decreases in memory, attention, and problem solving ability. This occurs to everyone as they age, but to varying degrees. Some deteriorate into a dementia, while others maintain high levels of cognitive capacity into very advanced ages. It is estimated that around 30% of the elderly show significant age related cognitive decline. But, remember that this also means that 70% of the elderly retain reasonable levels of cognitive ability.


It is, therefore, important to investigate methods to slow the mental decline during aging. Some promising methods are contemplative practices which have been shown to restrain age related declines. One particularly promising method is the ancient eastern practice of Tai Chi. It is particularly promising due to the fact that it is both a physical and a mental practice. Indeed, tai chi practice has been shown to slow cognitive decline in aging.


In today’s Research News article “Effects of Tai Chi and Western Exercise on Physical and Cognitive Functioning in Healthy Community-Dwelling Older Adults”

Taylor-Piliae and colleagues randomly assigned sedentary adults over 60 years of age to either a tai chi practice, a physical exercise program, or attention (healthy aging) training. Training occurred twice a week in 90-minute classes and three times per week in home practices. They measured the physical and mental capabilities of the participants at 6 and 12 months of training. They found that both the tai chi and exercise groups improved in both flexibility and balance in comparison to the control condition. At 6 months the tai chi group was superior with balance while the exercise group was superior in flexibility, but at 12 months the two groups were equivalently superior to the control group in both flexibility and balance. In contrast, only the tai chi group demonstrated improved levels of cognitive function including memory and semantic fluency at both 6 and 12 months.


These results suggest that both tai chi and exercise are effective in slowing the physical decline with aging but tai chi has the added benefit of also slowing the cognitive decline. Since tai chi is safe, with no known adverse effects, and a gentle practice it is very appropriate for an aging population. Also, since it can be taught and practiced in groups and easily maintained at home, it is a very inexpensive intervention. This makes it almost ideal for aging individuals on fixed incomes.


The results suggest that tai chi practice may be helpful in preventing falls as a result of improvement in balance and flexibility and slow the mental decline with aging. This indicates that tai chi practice should be recommended for elderly individuals to help maintain their physical and mental abilities. So, improve physical and cognitive function with tai chi.


“There is growing evidence that Tai Chi can significantly reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and improve cognitive function.” – Exercise Medicine Australia


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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