Tai Chi training might promote emotional stability and slow gray matter atrophy in seniors

Long-term Tai Chi practitioners tend to have better emotional stability and more gray matter in important brain structures, according to new research that examined people who were between 60 and 70 years old. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

“Adverse structural changes in the brain, especially the atrophy of gray matter, are inevitable in aging,” said study author Zhiyuan Liu, an associate professor at Shaanxi Normal University in China.

“Tai Chi is a popular exercise for older adults in China which combines Chinese martial arts and meditative movements with a kind of yogic relaxation through deep breathing. Compared with other exercises that contain a meditation element, Tai Chi is generally recognized as a safe and low-cost complementary therapy.”

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brain structure of 31 long-term Tai Chi practitioners to 31 participants who were matched in age, gender, and physical activity level. Those in the Tai Chi group had been practicing Tai Chi for about 10 years on average.

The Tai Chi group scored higher on tests of mindfulness and emotional stability compared to the control group. Tai Chi group also had larger gray matter volume in the two important brain regions, the left thalamus and the left hippocampus.

The findings indicate that long-term Tai Chi practice may have a protective role in slowing gray matter atrophy, improve the emotional stability, and achieve successful aging for elders, Liu told PsyPost. “So, please carry on and enjoy Tai Chi!”

The results are also in line with a previous study, which found increases in brain volume and improvements on tests of memory and thinking in Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week.

But the current study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The major limitation was that the current study was a cross-sectional study, not a randomized controlled trial. So, there was a potential self-selection bias. This self-selection might be due to genetic, socioeconomic, convenience, or environmental factors, which we did not directly assess. Thus, these results might not generalize robustly and could be caused by other factors that were not measured,” Liu said.

“This should be considered carefully when attributing causality. As such, in the future, we will perform a longitudinal study and a randomized controlled trial to investigate the changes in emotional stability after long-term Tai Chi training.”

The study, “Long-Term Tai Chi Experience Promotes Emotional Stability and Slows Gray Matter Atrophy for Elders“, was authored by Sijia Liu, Lin Li1, Zhiyuan Liu, and Xiuyan Guo.