Tai Chi: A New Weapon in the Battle Against Alzheimer's

As science makes a strong case for the practice's effectiveness in warding off dementia, an expert shows how it's done

By David-Dorian Ross
Originally Posted On August 8, 2013

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David-Dorian Ross is a 7-time U.S. national champion and world silver medalist in the martial art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, and the author of numerous books on the sport.

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The number of people living with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia-related conditions is exploding in the United States. But while scientists struggle to find a new medical treatment, tai chi, the ancient Chinese martial art, has emerged as a potentially potent way to help stem the tide.

Researchers from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai recently found that healthy, randomly selected Chinese adults in their 60s and 70s who practiced tai chi for 30 minutes three times a week experienced significant increases in brain volume as well as improved memory and cognitive function, compared to a similar group whose subjects did not practice tai chi.

The team's eight-month study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, was the first to show that a regimen like tai chi could deliver such results. A decrease in brain volume, as nerve cells and their connections are lost, is associated with cognitive decline and dementia. During the trial, the group that did not practice tai chi experienced typical brain volume loss expected of people within the age group.

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, a number the group estimates will reach at least 13.8 million by 2050. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, fifth among people 65 and older. And while deaths from major diseases, like heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer and HIV/AIDS, have declined since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer's disease have increased 68 percent.

No medications have yet been shown effective in stopping the disease, and some have problematic side effects. But some practices, like regular aerobic exercise, changes in diet and engagement with learning and the arts, have shown progress in delaying the advance of Alzheimer's. People who live an active lifestyle are less likely to get dementia and those with dementia who adopt an active lifestyle can slow its progression.

"It may be possible to delay the onset of dementia in older persons through interventions that have many physical and mental health benefits," Dr. James Mortimer, professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "If this is shown, then it would provide strong support to the concept of 'use it or lose it' and encourage seniors to stay actively involved both intellectually and physically.

"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," Mortimer said. "This may be a result of growth and preservation of critical regions of the brain affected by this illness."

The study shows why tai chi may yet prove to be an effective non-drug therapy for Alzheimer's and dementia. The magic is in its simplicity. Tai chi, a full-body exercise enhancing strength and flexibility, is easy to practice and can be made available to almost anyone at risk or suffering from dementia at virtually no cost.

And we should not overlook the fact that tai chi has been shown to have many other benefits. The American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health have all recommended it as a form of exercise for the elderly because it helps to reduce falls, the leading cause of injury death among people 65 and older. Tai chi is also effective in reversing or mitigating the symptoms of arthritis, diabetes and hypertension, and boosting the immune system after cancer treatment.

Those who care for someone with dementia can also benefit from tai chi. Simple and self-contained, it can easily fit into a lifestyle filled with the demands of caregiving. A recent Tufts University review of 40 studies found that tai chi "appears to be associated with improvements in psychological well-being, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem."

The movement I demonstrate in the following video, Brush Knee and Push, is a great exercise for stimulating brain activity: