5-Year study shows Tai Chi could help counter Parkinson's advance
While its movements are slow and gentle, Tai Chi is actually a martial art. Now, a new study shows that it can not only help people learn movements grounded in self defense, but it can also help them fight back against the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Parkinson's disease affects about 10 million people across the globe and is the fastest-growing neurological condition in the world, according to Parkinson's UK. While it's known that the disease affects the brain's production of dopamine, the exact cause of the condition, as well as a cure, has remained elusive.
That said, attempts at identifying the root cause of Parkinson's and battling its effects are coming on strong. This year alone, doctors have identified a marker in the retina that may lead to the condition; untangled the mystery of how the mutated proteins that accompany the disease spread and gather in the brain; and linked certain gut disorders with the condition's development. In terms of treatment, 2023 showed promise with stem cell therapy; a targeted treatment based on intestinal bacteria; and even an app that improves gait and coordination in Parkinson's patients.
Now a new study reinforces a simpler path toward beating back the advance of Parkinson's: the ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi.
Previous studies showed that practicing Tai Chi for a one-hour duration twice a week for six months helped counter several of the effects of Parkinson's resulting in improved gait velocity and postural stability, which led to reduced falls and a better quality of life.
For the new study, researchers in China wanted to see if the long-term practice of Tai Chi would have an even greater impact. So they monitored two groups of patients with Parkinson's for over five years, between January 2016 and June 2021. One group, consisting of 147 patients, practiced Tai Chi according to the schedule established in the earlier study: twice a week for one hour each time. A control group of 187 patients did not engage in the activity.
Once again, the researchers saw a significantly slower progression of the disease in the long-term Tai Chi practitioners. Those who engaged in the exercise did better across the study based on a wide range of metrics. Plus, at the conclusion of the study period, only 87.5% of the people engaging in Tai Chi needed to increase their medication versus 96% in the control group.
The Tai Chi group also saw fewer complications from the disease. For example, the rate of dyskinesia, the tremor-like movements associated with Parkinson's, was 1.4% versus 7.5% in the control group. Hallucinations were reported at just over 2% in the control group, but the Tai Chi practitioners didn't experience this symptom at all. And only 3% of the Tai Chai group showed mild cognitive impairment, while 10% of the control group exhibited the trait.
The researchers point out that their study was observational, which means that it doesn't show cause and effect, and that it was conducted on a relatively small sample size. Still, they feel encouraged by the finding and say that it points to "the potential disease-modifying effects on both motor and non-motor symptoms, especially gait, balance, autonomic symptoms and cognition.”
They add that Tai Chi practice "could prolong the time without disability, leading to a higher quality of life, a lower burden for caregivers, and less drug usage.”
The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.