Tai chi chih, the Westernized version of the 2,000-year-old Chinese martial art known for its slow movement and meditation, significantly boosts the immune system of older adults, according to a new UCLA study.
Tai chi specifically boosts the immune system against the virus known as shingles, which is a painful, blistery rash.
The 25-week study involved a group of 112 adults ranging in age from 59-86. The study showed that practicing tai chi chih by itself boosted the immune system to levels comparable to having received the standard varicella zoster virus which causes shingles.
When tai chi chih was combined with the vaccine, immunity reached a level normally seen for someone in middle age. The UCLA report currently appears online in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
According to lead author Michael Irwin, the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, the results confirm a positive, virus-specific immune response to a behavioral intervention. It demonstrates that tai chi chih can produce a clinical boost in the immunity from shingles and increase the benefit of the shingles vaccine in older adults.
“These are exciting findings, because the positive results of this study also have implications for other infectious diseases, like influenza and pneumonia,” said Irwin, who is also director of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. “Since older adults often show blunted protective responses to vaccines, this study suggests that tai chi is an approach that might complement and augment the efficacy of other vaccines, such as influenza.”
The study worked by dividing individuals into two groups. Half took tai chi chih classes three time a week for 16 weeks. The other half attended health education classes which included advice on stress management, diet, and sleep habits. They did not practice tai chi chih.
After 16 weeks both groups received a dose of the shingles vaccine Varivax. At the end of the 25-week period, the tai chi chih group achieved a level of immunity two times higher than the other group.
The research follows the success of an earlier study that showed a positive immune system boost from tai chi chih without being combined with the vaccine.
The shingles virus is the same that causes chickenpox in kids. Kids who get chickenpox recover, but the virus remains dormant in the body. As people get older their weakening immune system can allow the virus to return as shingles. About one-third of adults over 60 will get shingles at some point.