Tai Chi for brain health

May 17, 2023

Looking for a gentle form of exercise that may provide a workout for the brain? Try tai chi. The slow, choreographed movements of tai chi, sometimes referred to as “meditation in motion,” are easy to learn and can be done by just about anyone, and they may provide a cognitive boost for people with memory and thinking problems, according to a new report.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at 328 men and women 60 and older who had Type 2 diabetes and mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a form of memory loss that can progress to full-blown dementia. Many people with Type 2 diabetes, a disorder of blood sugar metabolism, also have MCI, and diabetes is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. None of the participants were regular exercisers, though none had serious medical problems that prevented them from doing exercise.

The researchers randomly divided the participants into three groups. One group learned the movements of tai chi under the instruction and guidance of a health professional, doing the mind-body exercises for an hour three times a week for 24 weeks. Another group participated in a medically supervised fitness walking program, also for an hour three times a week for 24 weeks. The third group carried out their usual routines for the duration of the study and served as controls.

Those in the tai chi or walking groups were encouraged to continue the exercises after the 24-week training programs. All the participants were given cognitive tests to assess memory and thinking skills when the study started, and again at 24 weeks and 36 weeks.

After 36 weeks, those who had done the tai chi exercises or the fitness walking program showed improvements in tests of memory and thinking skills. Those in the tai chi group showed the biggest improvements in cognitive skills, though those who had participated in the walking program also saw brain benefits. Those in the control group did not show improvements on cognitive tests.

Tai chi also had physical benefits. Those who had done the tai chi exercises had fewer falls overall than those in the walking group, while those in the control group were most likely to experience falls. Tai chi (like walking) strengthens muscles and improves balance, helping to reduce the likelihood of falls. Preventing falls is important in older adults, especially in those with Alzheimer’s disease, because falls can lead to broken bones and other serious medical complications that require hospitalization, which can in turn can worsen memory problems or dementia.

The authors speculate there may be several reasons why tai chi can lead to brain benefits. First, tai chi is a moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, equivalent to brisk walking, and aerobic exercise is known to improve blood flow, including blood flow to the brain. Other studies have shown that tai chi may strengthen the hippocampus and other areas of the brain critical for memory and cognitive function. Tai chi also requires learning new movements and remembering specific sequences, all of which may bolster new connections in the brain. The meditative and relaxation training aspects of tai chi may also lessen anxiety, stress and depression, which have been shown to compromise brain health. Finally, in strengthening muscles, tai chi may also raise levels of chemicals in the brain that boost the growth of new brain cells and brain cell connections.

Tai chi can be done by people of any age, and even by people who are in wheelchairs or bedridden. It is low-impact and does not place stress on joints or muscles, and once the moves are learned it can be done pretty much anywhere. A growing number of Y’s, health clubs and senior and community centers offer classes in tai chi.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University. 

Source: Yannan Chen, Jiawei Qin, Zhizhen Liu, et al: “Effects of Tai Chi Chuan on Cognitive Function in Adults 60 Years or Older With Type 2 Diabetes and Mild Cognitive Impairment in China: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” JAMA Network Open, April 6, 2023


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