Improve Thinking in Older Adults with Tai Chi

Improve Thinking in Older Adults with Tai Chi


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“It may be no surprise that Tai Chi has physical benefits – after all, it involves movement. Well, did you know that Tai Chi may also have mental benefits? Specifically, . . . significant increases in the brain size, memory and thinking of older adults who practiced Tai Chi compared to other groups in the study.” – Tai Chi for Health


We celebrate the increasing longevity of the population. But, aging is a mixed blessing. The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline of the body and the brain. Every system in the body deteriorates including cognitive function (thinking ability) and motor function with a decline in strength, flexibility, and balance. It is inevitable. In addition, many elderly experience withdrawal and isolation from social interactions. There is some hope as there is evidence that these declines can be slowed. For example, a healthy diet and a regular program of exercise can slow the physical and cognitive decline of the body with aging. Also, contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi or qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline.


Tai Chi has been practiced for thousands of years with benefits for health and longevity. Tai Chi training is designed to enhance function and regulate the activities of the body through regulated breathing, mindful concentration, and gentle movements. Only recently though have the effects of Tai Chi practice been scrutinized with empirical research. But, it has been found to be effective for an array of physical and psychological issues. Tai Chi has been shown to help the elderly improve attentionbalance, reducing fallsarthritiscognitive functionmemory, and reduce age related deterioration of the brain. Because Tai Chi is not strenuous, involving slow gentle movements, and is safe, having no appreciable side effects, it is appropriate for all ages including the elderly and for individuals with illnesses that limit their activities or range of motion.


In today’s Research News article “The benefits of Tai Chi and brisk walking for cognitive function and fitness in older adults.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ), Ji and colleagues recruited health adults aged 60 to 72 years. Participants who engaged in Tai Chi, brisk walking, or no exercise were compared on cognitive performance. They were measured with the Stroop test where names of colors were presented in colors different from the word, e.g. the word RED appears in a blue color. The participants are asked to report the word (naming) or the color of the word ignoring the meaning of the word itself (inhibition) or switch back and forth (Executive function). They were also measured with a digit comparison task in which they were presented with two numbers and asked to identify which was larger. The numbers were presented either simultaneously (non-delay) or delayed by 1.5 seconds (delay).


They found that both the Tai Chi and brisk walking groups were superior on the tasks than the control group. But, the Tai Chi group responded faster on the Stroop naming and executive conditions and were more accurate on the inhibition condition than the brisk walking group. In addition, the Tai Chi group responded faster than the brisk walking group on the delayed digit comparison condition. This suggests that the both Tai Chi and brisk walking participation improves cognitive performance in older adults but that Tai Chi dose so better than brisk walking.


The interpretation of the results needs to be qualified as there was no active manipulations of the activity conditions. Older adults who already participated in these activities were simply compared. Hence, it is impossible to conclude causation. It is conceivable that people who chose to participate in Tai Chi may be different people with better cognitive ability than people who chose brisk walking. The observed differences, then, may be due to the typ of people whoe chose an activity rather than the effects of the activity.


But, taken at face value the results suggest the Tai Chi, which places greater cognitive demands on the practitioner than brisk walking, has greater cognitive benefits. Given the progressive inevitable decline with aging in cognitive ability, methods that can slow or delay the decline are valuable. Tai Chi would appear to be an almost ideal method to improve fitness and balance, reducing falls, in the elderly and improve cognitive performance.


So, improve thinking in older adults with tai chi.


“Epidemiologic studies have shown repeatedly that individuals who engage in more physical exercise or are more socially active have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The current findings suggest that this may be a result of growth and preservation of critical regions of the brain affected by this illness.” – James Mortimer


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Ji, Z., Li, A., Feng, T., Liu, X., You, Y., Meng, F., … Zhang, C. (2017).. PeerJ, 5, e3943.



The purpose of this study was to investigate the benefits of exercises with different cognitive demands for cognitive functions (Executive and non-Executive) in healthy older adults. A cross-sectional design was adopted. In total, 84 healthy older adults were enrolled in the study. They were categorized into the Tai Chi group (TG), the brisk walking group (BG) or the control group (CG). Each participant performed the Stroop task and a digit comparison task. The Stroop task included the following three conditions: a naming condition, an inhibition condition and an executive condition. There were two experimental conditions in the digit comparison task: the non-delay condition and the delay condition. The results indicated that participants of the TG and BG revealed significant better performance than the CG in the executive condition of cognitive tasks and fitness. There was no significant difference of reaction time (RT) and accuracy rate in the inhibition and delay conditions of cognitive tasks and fitness between the TG and BG. The TG showed shorter reaction time in the naming and the executive conditions, and more accurate in the inhibition conditions than the BG. These findings demonstrated that regular participation in brisk walking and Tai Chi have significant beneficial effects on executive function and fitness. However, due to the high cognitive demands of the exercise, Tai Chi benefit cognitive functions (Executive and non-Executive) in older adults more than brisk walking does. Further studies should research the underlying mechanisms at the behavioural and neuroelectric levels, providing more evidence to explain the effect of high-cognitive demands exercise on different processing levels of cognition.

2 thoughts on “Improve Thinking in Older Adults with Tai Chi

  1. Got it, John.

    Where do you do tai chi? I’m looking for something in the Austell/Smyrna area. What they’ve got here at Presbyterian Village isn’t what I want.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *