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Can Tai Chi Improve Mild Cognitive Impairment and Daily Function?

A recent study explored the effects of tai chi on mild cognitive impairment and the activities of daily living in older adults.

Mild cognitive impairment is characterized by mild problems in cognitive abilities such as memory, thinking and reasoning skills. People with mild cognitive impairment may also have minor difficulties carrying out instrumental activities of daily living. Instrumental activities of daily living include activities such as paying bills, shopping, and cooking, which demand more cognitive resources, compared to basic activities of daily living like toileting and bathing. While mild cognitive impairment is considered a risk factor for the development of dementia, not all people with mild cognitive impairment will go on to develop dementia.

No Pharmacological Treatments

There are currently no pharmacological treatments for mild cognitive impairment, and medications that improve symptoms of dementia do not prevent or slow the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia. Current recommendations focus on lifestyle modifications, and some studies have shown that exercise mitigates dementia risk. Mind-body exercises like tai chi have been shown to improve symptoms of cognitive impairment, including mild cognitive impairment, in older adults; however, more research is needed to test the effects of tai chi on cognitive impairment and daily functioning.

Recently, researchers in Hong Kong tested the effects of tai chi on global cognitive function and instrumental activities of daily living performance in community-dwelling older adults with mild cognitive impairment. A total of 160 adults aged 60 years and over from four community-based elderly care centers participated in the quasi-experimental study. Of the 160 participants, 80 received hour-long tai chi classes twice a week for 16 weeks. The other 80 participants acted as the control group, continuing their participation in weekly activities offered at the community centers. Researchers tested global cognitive function and instrumental activities of daily living performance before the intervention began and after study completion. The results were recently published in the journal BMC Geriatrics.

Tai Chi May Help Those with Mild Cognitive Impairment

Among the participants, 74 in the intervention group and 71in the control group completed the study. After accounting for sociodemographic differences in age, educational level, living conditions, and marital status, older adults who participated in the tai chi sessions showed improvements in global cognitive function and instrumental activities of daily living performance compared to older adults in the control group. However, further analyses showed that the magnitude of change did not exceed the requirement necessary to rule out measurement error, decreasing confidence in the results.

Future Research Should Use a Randomized Controlled Design

This study was limited by its quasi-experimental design, which did not allow for random assignment. Additionally, the participants were aware of their group assignments, which were based on the elder care centers they attended, prior to recruitment. This knowledge may have influenced their willingness to participate. Future research should focus on randomized controlled trials with larger samples, including comparisons of the effects of different types of exercise on mild cognitive impairment and functional status.

Written by Suzanne M. Robertson, Ph.D.

Reference: Siu, Mei-yi, and Diana TF Lee. “Effects of tai chi on cognition and instrumental activities of daily living in community dwelling older people with mild cognitive impairment.” BMC Geriatrics18, no. 1 (2018): 37.



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