Scientists have found improvements on memory tests and an increase in brain volume in Chinese seniors who practice tai chi three times a week, according to an article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The trial also showed increases in brain volume and smaller cognitive improvements in individuals that participated in lively discussions three times per week over the same time period.
Researchers from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai conducted an eight-month randomized controlled trial involving a group of seniors who practiced tai chi as well as a group who participated in lively conversations. Researchers compared these to a control group who received no intervention.
Previous studies have shown an increase in brain volume in people who participated in aerobic exercise, and in one of these trials, memory was improved as well.
However, this was the first trial to prove that a less aerobic form of exercise, tai chi, as well as stimulating discussion, led to similar increases in brain volume and improvements on psychological tests of memory and thinking.
Volunteers who did not participate in the interventions showed brain shrinkage during this time period, consistent with what generally has been observed for persons in their 60s and 70s.
Several studies have shown that dementia and the gradual cognitive decline that precedes it is linked to increasing shrinkage of the brain as nerve cells and their connections are slowly lost.
“The ability to reverse this trend with physical exercise and increased mental activity implies that it may be possible to delay the onset of dementia in older persons through interventions that have many physical and mental health benefits,” said lead author James Mortimer, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
Research suggests that aerobic exercise is associated with increased production of brain growth factors. It has been undetermined whether forms of exercise like tai chi that include an important mental exercise component could lead to similar changes in brain development.
“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,” Mortimer said.
One question raised by the research is whether sustained physical and mental exercise can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
“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. “The current findings suggest that this may be a result of growth and preservation of critical regions of the brain affected by this illness.”
Source: University of South Florida