Alzheimer's / Dementia

11/29/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

The graceful Chinese practice of Tai Chi offers numerous physical benefits, such as balance, flexibility, and strength, but a new benefit has recently been recognized: practicing tai chi to slow cognitive decline

If you’ve ever watched someone do tai chi, it may look as though they’re just moving their arms and legs around in a languid interpretative dance of sorts. But don’t be fooled by this slow-motion style of martial arts! It can actually help you build upper and lower body strength, much like resistance training, as well as improve your flexibility and balance.

As important as those benefits are, they’re hardly the only ways that tai chi can positively impact you. Because this exercise, sometimes known as “meditation in motion,” requires that you focus intently on the movements, known as “forms,” tai chi encourages mindfulness. But you also have to remember those initially complicated forms, which is a great way to give your brain a workout too!

Surprising results

In fact, a recent study put this brain benefit to the test. First, approximately 300 seniors in their mid-70s were given the 10-minute Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), which gauges short-term memory, language, executive function, attention, and more. With a score of 26 to 30 being normal, the group averaged a score of 25, which indicates mild impairment.

After establishing this baseline, some of the group participated in a form of tai chi called Tai Ji Quan twice a week, while others did simple stretching exercises. After six months, the group was tested again. Those who did tai chi performed much better on the follow-up test than those who didn’t. In fact, they improved their score by 1.5 points. Because those with mild cognitive impairment typically lose half a point on the MoCA each year, the 1.5-point gain essentially bought the participants three extra years of cognitive function, the study author, Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, told NPR.

Doubling down on tai chi to slow cognitive decline

As a result of the significant results of their initial study, the researchers took it a step further by using Cognitively Enhanced Tai Ji Quan. With this type of tai chi, participants were given extra brain challenges, such as spelling a word backward and forward, while performing tai chi forms. Those who participated in this more rigorous exercise saw an approximate three-point improvement in their score, which equates to an impressive six bonus years before cognitive decline.

A great fit for seniors

Tai chi is a very gentle, low-impact form of exercise, where participants’ muscles are more relaxed and joints are not fully extended or fully bent. In fact, because it puts less pressure on joints, tai chi is recommended by the American College of Rheumatology for managing knee and hip osteoarthritis. Plus, this practice is easy to adapt to seniors at almost any fitness level or with any health condition; there are even seated forms for those with mobility issues.

Practicing tai chi may also help seniors maintain their independence longer. “Because tai chi evolved in terms of physical function and interaction,” said Dr. Peter Wayne, the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, “I think it translates better to everyday living activities, like lifting groceries, pushing doors open or catching things that fall.”

Related: Using mindfulness to help manage diabetes

Getting started

You can find tai chi classes online; however, when you’re just beginning, in-person classes at a gym, senior or community center, or senior living community may offer greater guidance and recommend appropriate modifications. With an instructor in the room, the class may also move more slowly than an online class, giving you greater opportunity to master the forms.

However, before signing up for any tai chi class, it’s wise to check with your doctor, especially if you have a restrictive medical condition or are taking medications that can make you dizzy.

Related: Osteoporosis and exercise

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones