Science + Technology

Practicing Tai Chi Boosts Immune System in Older Adults, UCLA Study Shows


Taichi chih, the Westernized version of the 2,000-year-old Chinese martial artcharacterized by slow movement and meditation, significantly boosts the immunesystems of older adults against the virus that leads to the painful, blisteryrash known as shingles, according to a new UCLA study.

The25-week study, which involved a group of 112 adults ranging in age from 59 to86, showed that practicing tai chi chih alone boosted immunity to a levelcomparable to having received the standard vaccine against the shingles-causingvaricella zoster virus. When tai chi chih was combined with the vaccine, immunityreached a level normally seen in middle age. The report appears in the Aprilissue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, currently online.

Theresults, said lead author Michael Irwin, the Norman Cousins Professor ofPsychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA,confirm a positive, virus-specific immune response to a behavioralintervention. The findings demonstrate that tai chi chih can produce aclinically relevant boost in shingles immunity and add to the benefit of theshingles vaccine in older adults.

"Theseare exciting findings, because the positive results of this study also haveimplications for other infectious diseases, like influenza and pneumonia," saidIrwin, who is also director of the UCLA Cousins Centerfor Psychoneuroimmunology. "Since older adults often show blunted protectiveresponses to vaccines, this study suggests that tai chi is an approach thatmight complement and augment the efficacy of other vaccines, such asinfluenza."

Thestudy divided individuals into two groups. Half took tai chi chih classes threetimes a week for 16 weeks, while the other half attended health education classes— including advice on stress management, diet and sleep habits — for the sameamount of time and did not practice tai chi chih. After 16 weeks, both groupsreceived a dose of the shingles vaccine Varivax. At the end of the 25-weekperiod, the tai chi chih group achieved a level of immunity two times greaterthan the health education group. The tai chi chih group also showed significantimprovements in physical functioning, vitality, mental health and reduction ofbodily pain.

Theresearch follows the success of an earlier pilot study that showed a positiveimmune response from tai chi chih but did not assess its effects when combinedwith the vaccine.

Thevaricella zoster virus is the cause of chickenpox in kids. Children who getchickenpox generally recover, but the virus lives on in the body, remaining dormant.As we age, Irwin said, our weakening immune systems may allow the virus toreemerge as shingles. Approximately one-third of adults over 60 will acquirethe infection at some point.

"Itcan be quite painful," Irwin said, "and can result in impairment to a person'squality of life that is comparable to people with congestive heart failure,type II diabetes or major depression."

Taichi chih is a nonmartial form of tai chi and comprises a standardized series of20 movements. It combines meditation, relaxation and components of aerobicexercise and is easy to learn.

Thestudy was supported by grants from the National Institute of Aging and the National Center for Complementary and AlternativeMedicine.

TheUCLA Cousin Center for Psychoneuroimmunologyencompasses an interdisciplinary network of scientists working to advance theunderstanding of psychoneuroimmunology by linking basic and clinical researchprograms and by translating findings into clinical practice. The center isaffiliated with the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLAand the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.



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