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Adding brain games during tai chi can help keep the mind sharp

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When it comes to keeping our mind sharp, a new study adds to the evidence that physical activity can help slow down cognitive aging. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: MaryBeth Van Cleave lives in a retirement community in Portland, Ore., with her wife and their cat, Irene. She started practicing tai chi when she was 75 years old. Now she's 86.

MARYBETH VAN CLEAVE: I guess that means 11 years, doesn't it? Which kind of makes me a newbie, but it's become a very important part of my life.

AUBREY: And when I asked her where she practices her tai chi forms...

VAN CLEAVE: I do them everywhere (laughter).

AUBREY: Tai chi is a form of martial arts. The practice incorporates a series of movements known as forms that are slow and gentle with a focus on breath, sometimes described as moving meditation. Watching from the outside, it doesn't look like much, but Van Cleave says that's a misconception.

VAN CLEAVE: Because we are working very hard, and there are so many times when I've avoided a fall because of the balance that tai chi gives me.

AUBREY: The practice helps maintain strength, and it's easy on the joints. And in addition to better balance, new research adds to the evidence that practicing tai chi can slow down cognitive decline. Here's study author Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, chief of geriatrics at Oregon Health and Science University.

ELIZABETH ECKSTROM: In tai chi, you have to memorize the moves - right? - and then you have to be able to execute them in a consistent pattern. So you're getting that physical activity plus having some memory piece to it.

AUBREY: As part of the study, about 300 participants in their 70s and older who all had mild memory decline took a 10-minute test to gauge their cognitive function. Then for the next six months, some practiced tai chi and some did simple stretching exercises. It turned out, those who did tai chi twice a week did much better on a follow-up test.

ECKSTROM: What our study showed was that, on average, people in the standard tai chi group improved their scores by about 1 1/2. So you've basically just given yourself three extra years.

AUBREY: Eckstrom explains that people with mild cognitive decline typically lose about a half point per year on the cognitive test. But by practicing tai chi, the study suggests people can significantly slow down cognitive decline. What's new here is that Eckstrom also had participants add something to their practice to make it tougher. For instance, she'd have them spell a word forwards and backwards while they did their tai chi moves.

ECKSTROM: So that you're really forcing your brain to think hard while you're also doing this very fluid, mind-body movement.

AUBREY: It turns out, people who tried this form of tai chi doubled their improvements on the test score.

ECKSTROM: Twice as much as with standard tai chi, and we've just given you six extra years of cognitive function. So that's a lot.

AUBREY: It's not clear whether everyone could benefit so much. And of course, you have to stick with it to see the benefits.

ECKSTROM: If you're able to keep doing this two or three days a week on a routine basis, you're going to get a lot of extra years before you hit that decline into dementia.

AUBREY: Hopefully adding quality years to the lifespan.

Allison Aubrey, NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.