This traditional Chinese martial art may do more than keep seniors strong, flexible and mobile. A new study from China found that practicing tai chi three times a week can increase brain volume and improve both memory and cognitive function. Researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University and a team from the University of South Florida conducted an eight-month trial comparing a group of Chinese seniors who regularly practiced tai chi with a control group that did not. The trial was the first to demonstrate that tai chi could result in improved memory and increased brain volume. Previous studies have shown that aerobic exercise can lead to an increase in brain volume, and some improvements in thinking were seen in seniors who participated in a discussion group that met three times a week. The researchers noted that gradual cognitive deterioration and dementia are associated with brain shrinkage. They said that the group that did not participate in tai chi or discussions showed a decrease in brain mass consistent with their age. The study was published June 19, 2012 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
My take? I’ve long viewed tai chi as an effective exercise for both mental and physical stimulation, and I often recommend it to promote flexibility, balance, stress reduction and relaxation. This study’s findings suggest that practicing tai chi can do much more for seniors. If further study reveals that it consistently leads to increases in brain volume and improvements in memory and thinking skills, it may become a core therapy to help seniors maintain their intellectual as well as their physical health.