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Tai chi helps brain grow, study shows

By Charlotte Sutton

Tampa Bay Times


TAMPA, Fla. >> Tai chi, the martial art that has become popular as a gentle mind-body workout, may have another benefit: Helping to increase the size of the brain. And brain growth, scientists hope, could unlock a clue to staving off and even preventing dementia.

Chinese seniors who practiced tai chi three times a week increased their brain volumes and scores on tests of memory and thinking, according to a study by scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai, published recently in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

An eight-month, randomized controlled trial compared seniors without dementia who practiced tai chi to a similar group that participated in stimulating discussions, a group that walked together and a group that received no intervention. All told, the study had 120 participants.

Lead researcher James Mortimer, a USF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics who has studied Alzheimer’s disease since the 1970s, cautioned that the study is preliminary and needs to be expanded. Still, it’s intriguing.

Among the heralds of dementia is brain atrophy. “So if we can increase brain size, we might be able to replace brain that’s been lost,” he said in an interview.

“In the tai chi group, we saw brain growth of one-half of 1 percent over eight months” measured through MRIs.

How exactly that growth occurred — and whether genetics or other factors might play into it — is a topic for a new study Mortimer and his colleagues hope to undertake, pending federal funding. This tai chi study was funded by Byrd Alzheimer’s Center in Tampa.

Numerous studies have drawn connections between physical activity and brain health. Much of the attention has been paid to aerobic activities such as fast walking, also shown to increase brain size. Tai chi has been investigated for its impact on cognitive function, but this new report is the first to look at brain volume, he said.

The discussion group also showed improvement in brain volume and cognition, though it was more limited. These weren’t just idle chats — Mortimer said that the participants so enjoyed their rousing discussions that they are still meeting even though the study ended two years ago.

Overall, the walkers showed no change in brain volume or cognitive function, perhaps because they were not required to raise their heart rates sufficiently. Still, the faster walkers in the group did better on the tests of memory and thinking.

The group that did nothing showed brain shrinkage and scored worse on cognitive tests than it had at the beginning.

Tai chi can be gentle, but it requires concentration to master and move correctly through the precise sequence of poses. That mind-body involvement could be what makes it effective for brain health, researchers theorized.

It’s particularly useful once age or infirmity has made more strenuous workouts difficult. Its many benefits include improvements in balance, cardiovascular health and stress relief.

“Tai chi is the kind of exercise you can do for a long time,” Mortimer said.

“I’m going to take it up.”

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manakuke wrote:
Martial arts practice that exercises the mind as well as the body.
on July 4,2012 | 05:13AM
false wrote:
Finally we can get this started? Been after this to start everyday of work for years. Now we have this testimonial. Can't wait to see 500 of the best and brightest in one fluid rhythm working on cognitive development. What are we waiting for?
on July 4,2012 | 05:24AM
koolau wrote:
Okay.....I'm ready to sign up. Are there any classes available on the windward side?
on July 4,2012 | 07:21AM
olos73 wrote:
@koolau, check out qicenter.com and there's classes on Kawa St., corner of Kahuhipa. They do different exercises and good for young and old. Good luck.
on July 4,2012 | 08:40AM
BO0o07 wrote:
Any classes on the Leeward side of the island?
on July 4,2012 | 09:50AM
olos73 wrote:
I know they have several at Leeward YMCA (Waipahu) and Mililani YMCA. There's some classes you have to search on web. Even Parks and Recreation have. Hope you find.
on July 4,2012 | 11:56AM
Changalang wrote:
The cultivation and direction of Chi is the mystery within the arts. Hawaii had a rich history of true masters. Like the Tao there two sides of the coin. Tao Ga Gung Fu is like a hard style Tai Chi. Lum Dai Yun refugee from Mao Chan Tao came here and brought special skills; the ability to focus, direct, and even steal chi as an energy. The lineage still lives with certain individuals today. There are many things people cannot explain, or grasp. It is nice to see science offering explanations or at least hints to the value of some of those mysteries. Usually power comes with a price, though. Not every door one opens can be closed. I think those who master that art have very little fear in their hearts. Grandmaster Chow also tapped into something special.
on July 4,2012 | 09:25PM
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