Hope for new dementia treatments: Tai-Chi, reviving an ancient practice

Dec 4, 2017

Hope for new dementia treatments: Tai-Chi, reviving an ancient practice

Hope for new dementia treatments: Tai-Chi, reviving an ancient practice

Dementia and mobility

When we think of dementia, most of us think of a disorder that affects mainly cognition, such as memory or thinking abilities. However, research has shown that people with dementia can also have significant mobility issues. It has become clear that there is a connection between the cognitive and motor systems in our brains. One thing you will notice for example is that those who have cognitive impairment due to dementia will struggle to talk while walking. This is because walking requires significant cognitive input. In a study of patients from a specialist cognitive clinic, motor and cognitive impairment were found to co-occur in 70% of patients. In particular problems with gait are very common. People who have dementia are twice as likely to fall and get injured as those without dementia. Hospital admission following a fall can be particularly stressful for a person with dementia, as they often become confused and agitated. Their health tends to worsen, making this experience stressful for carers as well.

Limited mobility is a key factor that can have a big impact on quality of life. Preventing falls is therefore very important. Evidence suggests that exercise-based interventions can be successful in improving mobility. Therefore, along with attempting to identify potential drug treatments, we should be looking at alternative treatments that can make a difference in the lives of those affected by dementia. One form of exercise that has shown promise is Tai-Chi.

What is Tai-Chi?

Tai-Chi is an ancient mind-body practice that originated in China around the 12th century AD as a martial art. It focuses on the body moving gently and slowly while breathing deeply and meditating. It could be described as meditation in motion. As a low-impact and aerobic exercise, it is perfect for those with mobility issues.

Why Tai-Chi?

It has been known for a while that there are many benefits of exercising. One of these is that exercise improves cerebral blood flow, which means more oxygen can get to our brains. This helps maintain neural and cognitive functioning. While regular exercise can be a good preventative measure to stay healthy for as long as possible, it is also important for those with a diagnosis of dementia to continue exercising. Inactivity can lead to muscle weakness and other problems, exacerbating physical disabilities.  While exercise will not stop dementia from progressing, it can give you a feeling of accomplishment and has many health benefits.

Tai-Chi, in particular, helps to improve balance and coordination. It can combat joint stiffness by promoting flexibility and increase muscle strength. As you are meditating while you exercise, Tai-Chi helps increase both calmness and awareness. Tai-Chi can also improve sleep, and might help reduce depression and alleviate boredom and loneliness. Previous studies have suggested that Tai-Chi can help boost the immunity to viruses in older people, while also improving their balance, which can help prevent falls. These various benefits of Tai-Chi make it an ideal treatment opportunity for those with dementia.

You can read more about the benefits of exercise, and in particular Tai Chi here.

A clinical trial

Based on preliminary studies showing the benefits of Tai-Chi, the Ageing and dementia research centre at the University of Bournemouth has initiated the first clinical trial in the UK to systematically study the effects of Tai-Chi on people with dementia. The question they are asking in their “TACIT” trial is “Can Tai-Chi improve postural balance to help prevent falls among people with dementia?”.

The trial led by Dr Samuel Nyman is for people with dementia and their informal carers. The aim is to enrol 150 people to the trial. Participants will stay in the study for 6 months. They will be randomly assigned to one of two groups. All participants will speak to researchers on a weekly basis on the phone. At the beginning of the trial, there is a home visit, where eligibility is checked and various assessments are carried out. These assessments are repeated after 6 months.  One group will do Tai-Chi for up to 20 weeks with classes taking place once a week, and regular practice at home with the help of a qualified Tai-Chi instructor. Results are expected to be released by the end of 2018.

The trial is taking place in various locations in England, including Bournemouth, Ferndown, Christchurch, Dorchester, Poole, Romsey, Eastleigh, and Portsmouth.

How you can get involved

If you are interested in taking part in the trial, have a look at further information here.

However, it is also possible for you to do Tai-Chi in your own time. There are many opportunities in communities, where classes are being offered. Make sure to check your local community resources. Alternatively, you may be able to find instructional videos on Youtube and in the Resources (Exercise) section of our CogniCare app.

Here are a few tips if you are planning on starting  Tai-Chi:

  • Make sure you have adequate instruction
  • If you do not position your body properly or overdo practice, this can result in sore muscles or trains
  • It is recommended not to practice Tai-Chi right after eating or when you are very tired or have an active infection
  • Certain postures should be avoided if you are pregnant, have a hernia or suffer from any of the following: joint problems, back pain, sprains, a fracture or severe osteoporosis
  • Tai-Chi should be seen as a complementary approach, and therefore practising it should not stop or delay seeking professional medical care

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