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What A New Government Report Means for Tai Chi?

by Susan Lowell, ATCQA Certified Tai Chi Instructor (Level III)  and owner of Tenleytown Tai Chi

In June, 2017, the National Academies released a report entitled Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia--a way forward, which should be of interest to Tai Chi teachers and students everywhere.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine operates under an 1863 charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln and granted by the Congress of the United States in order to meet the government's need for an independent advisor on scientific matters. The consensus report from the Committee on Preventing Dementia and Cognitive Impairment asserts that encouraging evidence supports the implementation of three concurrent interventions in order to slow cognitive decline and the onset of dementia.

The three classes of interventions recommended are: cognitive training, blood pressure management and increased physical activity. Those of us who practice Tai Chi will immediately recognize that the traditional Chinese internal art covers all three of these bases. Those of us who follow scientific research may appreciate what a rare move this is for a findings committee.

Why? The gold-standard of scientific research is randomized controlled trials. But, as the report acknowledges, randomized controlled trials with protocols having three different parameters would be "challenging to evaluate."

They could also take years.

And so, the absence of randomized controlled trials notwithstanding, the report identifies interventions that the committee "believes should be discussed with members of the public who are actively seeking advice on steps they can take to maintain brain health as they age." Additionally, because "the apparent complexity of the pathophysiology underlying cognitive decline and dementia suggests that a multi-faceted approach may be most effective," report committee chair Chair Alan I. Leshner has declared that "the evidence is strong enough to suggest the public should at least have access to these results to help inform their decisions about how they can invest their time and resources to maintain brain health with aging."

In terms of cognitive training, ample studies have indicated that Tai Chi practice improves cognitive functioning, memory, and even brain size. Research also has shown T'ai Chi to be effective in lowering and managing blood pressure, with one study even suggesting it may be as effective as prescription drugs. And although the movements are slow and gentle, we know that Tai Chi improves aerobic capacity, strength and oxygen uptake.

* "The Effect of Tai Chi on Cognition in Elders with Cognitive Impairment", published by Medsurg nursing: official journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, 2011 Mar-Apr.
* Scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found increases in brain volume and improvements on tests of memory and thinking in Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week, reports an article published June 19, 2012 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
* "Tai chi can lower blood pressure in older people as effectively as drugs or aerobic exercise, a new meta-analysis suggests", Dr Pescatello and coauthor Yin Wu, MA, also from the University of Connecticut, presented the finding here at the American College of Sports Medicine 2016 Annual Meeting.
* "The effectiveness of Tai Chi exercise in improving aerobic capacity", published by the journal Medicine and sport science, 2008
* "Cardiorespiratory function, flexibility, and body composition among geriatric Tai Chi Chuan practitioners", published by Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, June 1996.

Only time will tell, but cognitive training, blood pressure management and increased physical activity may turn out to be the trifecta of cognitive protection. Fortunately for us, Tai Chi bestows all three, and more.




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