Scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found increases in brain volume and improvements on tests of memory and thinking in Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week, reports an article published June 19 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
The findings were based on an 8-month randomized control trial comparing those who practiced Tai Chi to a group who did not. The trial also showed increases in brain volume and cognitive improvement in people who participated in lively discussions three times per week.
Previous trials have been conducted showing an increase in the brain volume of people who engaged in aerobic exercise. However, this was the first trial to show that a less aerobic form of exercise, Tai Chi, as well as stimulating discussion led to similar brain volume increases and improvements in psychological tests of memory and thinking.
The control group who did not participate in the Tai Chi and discussions showed brain shrinkage over the same time period, consistent with what has generally been observed in people in their 60s and 70s.
Numerous studies have shown that dementia and the syndrome of gradual cognitive deterioration that precedes it is associated with increasing shrinkage of the brain as nerve cells and their connections are gradually 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 Dr. James Mortimer, professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
Aerobic exercise has been seen to be associated with increased production of brain growth factors. This latest study may help to prove that exercises like Tai Chi, including the mental exercise component could lead to similar changes in the production of these factors. "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," Dr. Mortimer said.
One question raised by the research is whether sustained physical and mental exercise can contribute to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, the most common dementing illness.
"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," Dr. 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."
Reference: James A. Mortimer, Ding Ding, Amy R. Borenstein, Charles DeCarli, Qihao Guo, Yougui Wu, Qianhua Zhao, Shugang Chu. "Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-Based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese Elders." Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2012