Saturday, September 15, 2012

Want a Bigger Brain? Tai Chi May Help


This is one of occasional articles I plan to write on the health benefits of tai chi. Tai chi has become popular as an exercise to promote good health. There have been quite a few studies done in the last few years that support this.

There was a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease that evaluated interventions designed to reduce dementia risk. A representative group of elderly men and women from Shanghai were randomly assigned to one of four groups for the 40 week intervention. The groups were tai chi, walking, social interaction, and a control group with no intervention. The type or style of tai chi were not described in the paper.

Previous studies have shown that physical exercise can reduce dementia risk. In addition, increased social interaction has been observed to reduce risk, this is the first study to use randomized trials to evaluate this. Brain MRIs were performed before and after the study. In addition, a battery of neuropsychological tests were included.

Increases in brain volume were found in both the tai chi group and the social interaction group. This means that the brain was increasing the number of neural connections. There were no overall average increases in brain volume for the walking group and the control group. However, when the walking group was stratified according to walking speed, it was found that the members of the group that walked fastest had the most increase in brain volume. This suggests that more vigorous exercise could give more favorable results. This may not be possible for the elderly.

In addition, there were improvements in many of the other tests for the tai chi group. The social interaction group also showed improvement in some of the other tests, but not as many as with the tai chi group. No differences were found between the walking group and the control group in other tests.

This study excluded people that had ever practiced tai chi. However, it did not exclude people that had never walked. One of the inclusion criteria was that participants must be able to walk 2 km. I suspect that this decision by the researchers may have reduced a possible effect of improvements for people that start walking for the study. They are already in fairly good shape. Nevertheless, it is a fairly good study that shows that activities that require complex mental activities, like learning tai chi or practicing social interactions, increase brain volume and improve cognitive functioning. It does not show that practicing tai chi has any effect on fitness over that of simple walking.

Complete article here:
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 30 (2012) 757–766
DOI 10.3233/JAD-2012-120079
IOS Press

© 2012 Eric Borreson