Martial arts such as tai chi may help improve your memory

In my opinion, the greatest health threat facing the United States for at least the next 20 years is not heart disease, diabetes or cancer. It is the serious type of dementia associated with old age - Alzheimer's disease.

Currently, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and is the only leading cause of death for which there is no medication. It has been estimated that by 2050, the medical costs associated with Alzheimer's disease could exceed one trillion dollars per year.

While there currently is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, medical research has demonstrated that meditation strongly stimulates the memory centers of the brain. In a similar manner, the martial art tai chi also stimulates memory centers in the brain.

A recent medical study indicates that practicing certain mind-body based exercises can improve memory in the elderly. The study, published in the medical journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, demonstrated that the practice of two different martial art styles were able to significantly increase memory and cognition in the elderly when compared to non-exercising control groups.

The part of the brain that is involved with the storage of long-term memory is believed to be the hippocampus. The part of the brain that is believed to be involved in the processing of short-term memory is in the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.

The connection between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus is the pathway by which new memories are converted into long-term memories as well as the way that long-term memories are retrieved when needed in daily activities.

In this study two different martial arts were used, tai chi and baduanjin.

Tai chi is more physically active using upper body and lower body movements. Baduanjin movements primarily use the arms, but fewer movements with the legs.

Participants were tested for memory and cognition and had brain MRIs at the beginning and the end of study. What they found was that patients in the two martial art groups had significant improvements in memory and cognition as well as activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus compared to control groups. The tai chi group had slightly better scores, but was not significantly different from the baduanjin group.

Medical studies like this are demonstrating that, rather than waiting for a new medication, there may be steps we can take to improve memory as we age. Lifestyle changes including diet, stress reduction as well as specific mind-body exercises may be the key to living a long and healthy life.

• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is

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