Physical exercise has been identified as one of the most effective things an adult can do to reduce risk of cognitive decline, and has been shown to reduce the relative risk of dementia by 28 percent. As an exercise, tai chi has also been suggested to have more benefits than other forms of exercise, due to a number of components that have also been shown to be beneficial to reducing risks of cognitive decline. Tai chi cognitively engages participants as they learn new patterns of movements, often includes a meditative component that can lower stress levels, and is often practiced in a social group setting. These unique characteristics of tai chi and its practice among older adults led researchers to examine whether tai chi had positive benefits on cognitive function that exceeded the benefits of other forms of exercise. To do this, these researchers examined the available body or research on tai chi on older adults to see what conclusions could be drawn.
Twenty total studies were identified that looked at the impact of tai chi on cognitive performance, with a total of 2,553 participants overall. Eleven of these studies examined individuals who reported no cognitive impairment; in the nine other studies, the participants had varying degrees of cognitive impairment ranging from mild cognitive impairment to irreversible dementia. All but one study focused on individuals over 60. The studies were conducting in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
Some of the studies reviewed compared the impact of tai chi to control groups that weren’t assigned to another activity. When these studies examined executive function (which includes attention, processing speed, and short-term memory), they found that tai chi participants had improved executive function compared to control groups. More interestingly, in the two studies that compared tai chi participants to individuals assigned to a different form of exercising (walking and “western exercise”), they found that even compared to these other exercisers, tai chi participants showed greater improvement in executive function.
When looking at cognitively impaired individuals, the studies examined mostly focused on the association between tai chi and global cognition (using the Mini-Mental State Examination or the cognitive subscale of the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale). In these studies, researchers found similar patterns to what was observed in older adults without any cognitive impairment, when comparing cognitively impaired individuals, tai chi participants showed better outcomes in comparison to baseline than individuals that were not assigned to tai chi or any another activity. For studies that had comparisons to individuals assigned to another activity, tai chi participants again showed significant improvement compared to individuals who were doing either “western exercise,” cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, or mah-jongg.
Although additional research is still needed on the potential cognitive benefits of tai chi, this recent review suggests that tai chi could potentially confer additional cognitive benefits that other forms of exercise do not.
Wayne PM, Walsh JN, Taylor-Piliae RE, et al. Effect of tai chi on cognitive performance in older adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2013); 62: 25–39.