Tai chi is an ancient form of martial arts, but researchers say its low-impact movements can help today’s aging population improve brain function.

It looks like an elegant choreographed dance—slow and gentle—designed for the more delicate bodies of older people. But a recent meta-analysis, which pulls data from several different studies, says that exercise like tai chi isn’t just a Sunday morning meditation ritual for retirees.

Published in December 2018 by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, “Effects of Mind‐Body Exercises on Cognitive Function in Older Adults” concludes that exercises like tai chi can promote the overall performance of aging brains.

“Tai chi offers a lot to older participants,” agrees Brianna Carr, program coordinator at the Shaolin Institute in Gentilly. “It offers a better awareness of the functions of the body through meditation and muscle strengthening.”

This is exactly why about 75 percent of the Institute’s Thursday tai chi classes are made up of people 50 and older. Carr says that a lot of these participants joined the class to not only strengthen their muscles, but to also learn how to meditate—a key component of tai chi.

It was from these kinds of programs that the researchers collected the data. They analyzed results from 32 randomized controlled cases with a total of 3,624 participants aged between 50 and 85 years old. Eighteen studies looked at cognitive functions in healthy adults, and 14 focused on those with mild cognitive impairment, such as early stages of Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

The researchers collected the results of the individual studies and evaluated the overall effectiveness of the activities on the two groups. They concluded that a moderate intensity (about 60-120 minutes a week) of mind-body exercises—those that combine mental concentration, breathing control, and body movement—can significantly improve working memory, verbal fluency, and learning.

The analysis also looked at ballroom dancing, yoga, and other mind-body exercises, but resolved that only the tai chi and dancing subgroups had positive effects on cognitive flexibility, suggesting that these activities were better factors in evaluating those subjects with improved cognitive performance.

Researchers noted that good executive function can help older adults make appropriate decisions, focus on important details, store information in working memory, and shift tasks, all of which are cornerstones of cognitive flexibility.

“In our opinion, the moderate of mind-body exercise is associated with the improvement of global cognition, and could be recommended for older adults with or without cognitive impairment for better health,” says Chunzhi Tang, a researcher at the University of Chinese Medicine in Guangzhou, China, and a contributor to the analysis.

Tim Meyer is the Editor of Nola Family Magazine and Nola Boomers Magazine.

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