Tai Chi Shown to Increase Brain Size

You’ve probably seen older people doing it in the park, or seen it on TV, but it turns out Tai Chi isn’t just good for your body, it can actually keep your brain from shrinking as you age.

T’ai chi ch’uan, better known as Tai Chi in the English language, is gaining popularity worldwide. Tai chi is a type of Chinese martial art used for both its defense techniques, as well as health benefits.1 Recent studies conducted by scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found that Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week experienced an increase in brain size as well as improvements on tests of memory and thinking.2

The results of the research were based on an eight month randomized trial comparing those who participated in Tai Chi to a group who did not. This trial showed increases in brain volume as well as cognitive improvements. The group that did not participate in Tai Chi actually showed brain shrinkage, consistent with what has been observed with people in that age group.3

Studies show that dementia, and the gradual cognitive degeneration that follows it, is associated with brain shrinkage, as nerve cells and their connections are eventually lost. As with the recent trials, previous trials have shown that aerobic exercise can increase brain volume, and possibly even improved memory. Research indicates that aerobic exercise can be linked to an increase in production of brain growth factors. Although the findings were promising, it is still not known whether or not forms of exercise like Tai Chi, which requires a significant mental component, could lead to similar changes in the production of those brain growth factors.4

“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.5

“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.6

With the promising results of this research, more is needed to help determine whether or not mental and physical exercise can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia.7

“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.”8

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