Science + Technology

Mind over Matter: Tai Chi Class Boosts Shingles Immunity, Improves Physical Functioning in Older Adults


UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute researchers report thatolder adults in a 15-week Tai Chi class saw immunity factors that suppressshingles soar 50 percent. In addition, participants showed significantimprovement in their physical health and ability to move through their day.

Appearing in the September edition of the journalPsychosomatic Medicine, findings of the randomized, controlled clinical trialare the first to demonstrate a positive, virus-specific immune response to abehavioral intervention.

"Our findings offer a unique and exciting example of mindover matter," said Dr. Michael R. Irwin, a professor at the UCLANeuropsychiatric Institute and director of the Institute's Cousin's Center forPsychoneuroimmunology. "A large body of research shows how behavior cannegatively affect the immune system and health, but ours is the firstrandomized, controlled study to demonstrate that behavior can have a positiveeffect on immunity that protects against shingles. The findings are particularnoteworthy as Tai Chi Chih or 'meditation with movement' increased immunity inolder adults who are at risk for herpes zoster.

"The improvements in both immunity and physical functioningwere significant by widely accepted measures of each, and all with no surgery,no drugs and no side effects," Irwin said. "We were particularly struck byimprovements in what subjects were able to accomplish physically as a result ofparticipating in these classes. In fact, older adults who had more impairmentpresent at the start of the study showed the greatest improvement and benefitat the end."

The varicella zoster virus, or shingles, can cause a painfulskin rash with intermittent pain that can last for months or years. Even whenthe rash subsides, skin in the affected area can remain extremely painful tothe touch.

The virus lurks in the nerves of virtually everyone who hashad chicken pox, but the immune system typically prevents outbreaks. Thiscell-mediated immunity to the virus declines with age, however, leaving olderadults particularly susceptible to the painful condition. The greater thedecline, the greater the risk. No vaccination against shingles exists.

The study randomly assigned 36 men and women age 60 or olderto a 15-week program of three 45-minute Tai Chi classes a week or to a waitlist. To qualify, each volunteer had to show immunity to varicella zostervirus, but not to have had a history of shingles. They also had to be able towalk. Three class members dropped out before the study ended due totransportation issues. One member of the control group dropped out.

The class used a highly structured variety of the martialart called Tai Chi Chih, which is specially designed for easy use by olderadults.

Varicella zoster virus-specific, cell-mediated immunity wasmeasured before the program began and one week after the program ended. Doctorsused the Medical Outcome Scale to assess physical functioning before theprogram began; at five, 10 and 15 weeks during the program; and one week afterthe program ended.

The study was funded by the National Center forComplementary and Alternative Medicine, a unit of the National Institutes ofHealth.

Co-authors of the study were Jennifer L. Pike and Jason C.Cole of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Department of Medicine at theDavid Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Dr. Michael N. Oxman of theUniversity of California, San Diego and the San Diego Veterans AffairsHealthcare System.

The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinaryresearch and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex humanbehavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and socioculturalunderpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences ofneuropsychiatric disorders.

Online resources:

       UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute:

       Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology:

       David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA:



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