The ancient Chinese martial art Tai Chi has been connected to a lower risk of dementia, according to a recent study conducted by scientists from the Oregon Research Institute. The study involved more than 200 individuals over the age of 65 who were experiencing declining memory. These participants were asked to complete a virtual Tai Chi program over the course of five and a half months. They then underwent various tests to measure memory, orientation, sleep quality, and depression.
The test results were compared to a group that did stretching exercises instead of Tai Chi. The researchers discovered that those who practiced a specific type of Tai Chi, which involved saying words and phrases while holding positions designed to improve flexibility and balance, experienced three times greater improvements in cognitive skills compared to the stretching group. Follow-up tests conducted almost a year later showed continued improvements.
In the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers stated that their findings provide evidence that the Tai Chi exercise plan could potentially lower the risk of developing dementia. The researchers also highlighted that the magnitude of improvement observed in the study demonstrates the potential of Tai Chi to slow or counteract cognitive decline and maintain essential functional capacity for independent living.
This study follows on the heels of another recent study from China, which found that practicing Tai Chi was linked to slower deterioration in patients with Parkinson's Disease. The study, conducted by experts from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, included 330 patients with the progressive neurological disease and showed that those who practiced Tai Chi experienced a slower decline in symptoms compared to those who did not.
Dementia affects an estimated one in ten Americans aged over 65, or approximately 7 million people. One well-known sufferer of frontotemporal dementia is 68-year-old actor Bruce Willis, as revealed by his former wife Demi Moore earlier this year. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which compromises memory, orientation, and other cognitive functions, is a common precursor to dementia. Studies indicate that 10-20% of people over 65 with MCI develop dementia within a year, making it a leading risk factor for the disease.
In the latest study on cognitive impairment, 304 older people with MCI were split into three groups. One group practiced regular Tai Chi twice weekly for five and a half months, another group performed the same amount of simple stretching exercises, and the third group engaged in a specially designed type of Tai Chi called cognitively enhanced Tai Chi. All groups received instructions via video calls and completed the exercises in their own homes.
At the end of the experiment, participants in the enhanced Tai Chi group showed, on average, a three-point improvement in memory, attention, language, orientation, and spatial awareness. The regular Tai Chi group experienced a 1.7-point improvement, while the stretching group only saw a 0.3-point improvement. Additionally, the ability to perform two tasks simultaneously increased by 20% in the enhanced Tai Chi group, with no change observed in the stretching group.
While experts aren't entirely sure of the exact mechanisms behind these promising benefits, it is believed that the combination of thoughtful movements and remembering specific phrases enhances connectivity between different parts of the brain. Previous studies have also indicated that physical activity, including Tai Chi, can increase the level of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a crucial role in controlling movement and mood and is often lacking in individuals with Parkinson's Disease due to nerve cell degeneration in the substantia nigra region of the brain.
In conclusion, the latest findings from these studies provide further evidence of the potential benefits of practicing Tai Chi for cognitive health. The results suggest that Tai Chi may help reduce the risk of dementia and slow cognitive decline in individuals with mild cognitive impairment. Further research is needed to better understand the exact mechanisms at play, but the evidence thus far is promising for the millions of individuals at risk of dementia as they age.