Improve Attention in the Elderly with Tai Chi


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age.” – Peter Wayne


We all want to live longer. We celebrate the increasing longevity of the population. But, aging is a mixed blessing. The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. It cannot be avoided. Our mental abilities may also decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, and problem solving ability. These are called age related cognitive decline. 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. One of the key deficits that develops with age is in attention. It becomes easier to get distracted and harder to focus. This is, to some extent, responsible for some of the memory loss as the elderly person is not paying close enough attention to what’s going on to store and consolidate memories about it.


There is some hope for those who are prone to deterioration as there is evidence that these cognitive declines can be slowed. For example, a healthy diet and a regular program of exercise can slow the physical 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 with aging. Tai Chi is an ancient eastern practices involving slow mindful movements. It is a gentle exercise and a contemplative practice that improves mindfulness. Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve cognitive processes while Tai Chi practice has been shown to slow age related cognitive decline. It would seem reasonable to hypothesize that Tai Chi practice might decrease age related cognitive decline including deficits in attention.


In today’s Research News article “The mental-attention Tai Chi effect with older adults.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Kim and colleagues recruited individuals between 50 and 80+ years of age and separated them into two groups, Chinese and non-Chinese (English speakers) samples. They had both samples practice Tai Chi twice a week for 16 weeks for 1 to 1 ½ hours per session. The participants were measured both before and after the 16 weeks of practice with three attentional tasks and a measure of fluid intelligence.


They found that the effects of Tai Chi practice were different for the two groups. The Chinese sample had significant improvements in attentional capacity and attentional inhibition and also in fluid intelligence, while both groups showed improvements in attentional balance. The differences in the effects of Tai Chi practice might have been due to a number of differences between the groups. The Chinese group was significantly younger, less well educated, had lower incomes, and had more prior practice with Tai Chi than the non-Chinese sample. The results were not correlated with age so it is unlikely that this is the explanation for the differences but the results were significantly correlated with education, income, and experience with Tai Chi. So, these group differences may have been responsible for the differential effects.


The authors interpret the differences as due to motivational differences, where the Chinese sample were more motivated to practice Tai Chi as it is common in China. The two groups did not differ in attendance to Tai Chi practice, however, indicating that they may have been equivalently motivated. It is also possible that the Chinese participants through their culture had a stronger belief that Tai Chi is effective and thus had greater expectations that Tai Chi would improve attention. There is no way to assess which of the possible explanations might be true. That will require further research.


Mindfulness practices, in general, have been shown to improve attention and decrease cognitive decline in the elderly. So, the fact that Tai Chi, a mindfulness practice increases attention and fluid intelligence is not surprising.  Since, Tai Chi practice is a gentle practice with no significant negative side effects, that appears to have both physical and psychological benefits, and can be implemented at a very low cost, it would appear to be an ideal practice for the elderly to slow physical and cognitive decline.


So, practice Tai Chi to slow age related declines in attention and fluid intelligence.


“Tai Chi goes to the root system of the majority of health and wellness issues by unwinding the muscular tissues and mind, aligning the spine posture and stabilizing the energy devices that run via the body, giving them with life energy.”


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary

Kim, T. H. M., Pascual-Leone, J., Johnson, J., & Tamim, H. (2016). The mental-attention Tai Chi effect with older adults. BMC Psychology, 4, 29.


Background: Tai Chi practice has some fitness, wellness, and general cognitive effects in older adults. However, benefits of Tai Chi on specific mental-attentional executive processes have not been investigated previously. We studied older Canadian adults of Chinese and non-Chinese origin and from low socioeconomic areas.

Methods: Sixty-four adults (51–87 years old) took part in a 16-week Tai Chi program. There were two groups: Chinese-background (n = 35) and Non-Chinese-background (n = 29). They received four mental-attention executive tasks before and after the 16-week period. These tasks measured visuospatial reasoning, mental-attentional activation (working memory), attentional inhibition, and balance between these attention factors (field-dependence-independence).

Results: Chinese participants showed significant gain on Figural Intersections Task (mental-attentional capacity), Antisaccade (attentional inhibition), and Matrix Reasoning (fluid intelligence measure). Both groups evidenced gain on the Water Level Task (attentional balance).

Conclusions: These gains suggest that Tai Chi can improve mental-attentional vigilance and executive control, when practitioners are sufficiently motivated to pursue this practice, and apply themselves (as our Chinese participants seem to have done). We found that Tai Chi enhanced mental attentional executives in the Chinese sample. The largely negative results with Non-Chinese participants might be explained by less strong motivation and by the relatively short Tai Chi practice period, which contrasts with the prior familiarity with Tai Chi of the Chinese participants.