New Study: Tai Chi Could Help Prevent Cognitive Decline

Tai Chi Beach

Tai Chi, also known as Tai Chi Chuan, is a traditional Chinese martial art that combines slow, flowing movements with deep breathing and mental focus. It originated as a martial art but has evolved into a popular form of exercise and mind-body practice. Research suggests that Tai Chi can improve balance, flexibility, cardiovascular health, and overall well-being.

A multicenter randomized controlled trial has presented scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of Tai Chi Chuan as a beneficial therapy for older individuals with mild cognitive impairment and type 2 diabetes. The study demonstrates that practicing Tai Chi Chuan can significantly delay cognitive decline in this population.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is considered the transitional stage before dementia, appears to have a strong correlation with Type 2 diabetes (T2D), with nearly 45% of T2D patients also exhibiting MCI. However, researchers may have found a new way to fight back. Their solution lies in the multimodal mind-body exercise, Tai Chi Chuan, which incorporates slow, intentional physical movements with meditation, which has been gaining popularity.

A study conducted by researchers at the Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine indicates that practicing a 24-form simplified version of Tai Chi Chuan can boost cognitive functionality and physical health indicators in individuals with T2D and MCI. These improvements were observed over a 36-week period and were more pronounced compared to a traditional fitness walking group. This makes Tai Chi Chuan a potentially effective exercise regimen to mitigate the impact of T2D and, by extension, delay the onset of MCI progressing to dementia.

The findings were recently published in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers found after 36 weeks the Tai Chi Chuan group displayed more markers of improvement than the fitness walking group and control group, though notable differences between the groups were not yet seen after 24 weeks, indicating improvement in biomarkers and cognition may not occur until after this point.

This study has found that Tai Chi Chuan is more effective than fitness walking in improving global cognition for older adults with T2D and MCI, which we think is important for the public to learn and has clinical reference significance for the healthcare staff.

All groups were given an educational seminar on managing T2D and the benefits of diet and exercise for improving the condition. Participants in each group, except the control group which had no change in lifestyle, performed either Tai Chi Chuan or fitness walking for 60 minutes each time three times a week under the instruction and supervision of a medical health professional.

Changes were measured initially to get a baseline, and at the 24-week mark and 36-week mark using fasted blood glucose levels and other metabolic markers along with measuring Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) scores to determine cognitive function comparable to a global scale. MoCA is on a scale of 0-30, with a higher score indicating higher cognitive function. By the end of the 36-week study, the tai chi group had an average 3.29 point improvement in MoCA score compared to the baseline. The fitness walking group only improved by 2.32 points, with improvement slowing dramatically between the 24 and 36-week period with a 0.29 point increase compared to a -0.68 point increase in the Tai Chi Chuan group.

The ultimate goal is to establish a more scientific Tai Chi Chuan training program for older adults with T2D and MCI and decrease the incidence of progression to dementia in this population.

Further research is needed to reach this goal. A limitation of the study is the short follow-up period after the study was over, which does not give information on the longevity of this type of treatment. Additionally, since both activity groups were also given educational seminars on the benefits of exercise, this could have introduced a bias into the study. Fortunately, researchers did report a high adherence rate to the exercises after the study concluded.

Studying the effects of Tai Chi Chuan on a larger sample size with fewer restrictions can help gain insight into the possible benefits of the exercise that may extend to other groups of people that do not meet the narrow criteria of the original study, but would benefit from interventions that promote better physical and cognitive health.

Reference: “Effects of Tai Chi Chuan on Cognitive Function in Adults 60 Years or Older With Type 2 Diabetes and Mild Cognitive Impairment in China” by Yannan Chen, Ph.D., Jiawei Qin, Ph.D., Liyuan Tao, MD, Ph.D., Zhizhen Liu, MD, Ph.D., Jia Huang, MD, Ph.D., Weilin Liu, Ph.D., Ying Xu, Ph.D., Qiang Tang, MD, Ph.D., Yongguo Liu, Ph.D., Zhuhong Chen, MD, PhD7, Shangjie Chen, MD, Ph.D., Shengxiang Liang, Ph.D., Cong Chen, Ph.D., Jinjin Xie, MS, Jue Liu, Ph.D., Lidian Chen, MD, Ph.D. and Jing Tao, MD, Ph.D., 6 April 2023, JAMA Network Open.
DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.7004

The study was funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China.

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