Tai chi may boost shingles immunity

  • Health
  • Sunday, 30 Nov 2003


PARTICIPATION in the slow-motion martial arts programme known as tai chi chih may help older people battle shingles. 

In a recent study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 36 people over age 60 either took 15 weeks of classes in tai chi chih (a highly structured version of tai chi, designed with older people in mind) or were placed on a waiting list for those classes. 

Blood tests showed that those participating in the classes developed as much as 50% more of the kind of immune-system cell that fights shingles than they had going into the study. Those relegated to the waiting list showed no such change. 

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful skin disease that can develop in people who have had chickenpox. After the initial chickenpox illness, the varicella virus that causes it remains in the body, but the immune system usually keeps it from causing further illness. 

Immune response to the varicella virus declines with age, though, so the virus that has lain dormant for years can re-emerge, causing shingles. There is no vaccine to prevent shingles; nor can the illness be cured, though symptoms generally recede over a few weeks or months. 

Lead author Michael Irwin, a professor at the Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, says his study, published this fall in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, is the first that has looked at alternative medicine and how it affects the immune system. It’s also the first to look specifically at shingles immunity in an older population, he notes. 

“There had been lots of anecdotal reports of the health benefits of tai chi, but no randomised trial,” Irwin says. “We know exercise can boost aspects of the immune system, but viral immunity hadn’t been studied.” 

Participants also saw improvements in everyday physical function, he adds, “their abilities to do things like carry packages, walk, climb stairs. Those with the greatest impairments had the greatest gains.” 

Irwin notes, however, that his study is too small to be conclusive. 

Study: old age doesn’t spell shift in cognitive strengths 

RESEARCH presented in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has shaken the long-standing theory that differences among people’s cognitive strengths – from verbal skills to mathematical ability – become smaller as they grow old. 

The “de-differentiation hypothesis” holds that as people age, their relative strengths at individual cognitive skills tend to correlate more closely. So a person who had always been really good at math, but less skilled at, say, writing, would in old age have a smaller gap between those two skills. 

The hypothesis has existed for years, says Kaarin Anstey of Australia’s National University, but until now it hasn’t been rigorously examined among a randomly chosen sample of very old people. 

Anstey and her colleagues studied cognitive-skill data collected for 1,823 people ages 70 to 84 over eight years. The study looked both at differences among individuals at a given time and at changes over time. 

Anstey says, “It is important to understand this phenomenon better because it has implications for understanding normal age-related decline in cognitive abilities. If everything becomes more highly correlated as people age, it would suggest that a common factor or factors underlie the aging of a range of abilities. It would also imply that once one ability starts to decline, the other abilities would be likely to follow.” 

Instead, Anstey’s research suggests just the opposite: Her data show no evidence of such a “general merging of abilities” and hence, she says, no sign of an underlying, population-wide biological process that would lead to such overall decline. 

“Just as people retain their individual personalities as they age,” she says, “so they also retain their individual cognitive strengths and weaknesses.” 

Menopausal memory loss doesn’t signal dementia 

MOST women who suffer memory loss as they pass through menopause needn’t worry that their forgetfulness means they’re inching toward dementia. 

Peter Meyer and colleagues at Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center set out to test the notion that the start of menopause is the beginning of the end, in terms of memory. 

“Women are experiencing this unsettling phenomenon” in which they find themselves unable to remember names or to recall where they’ve left their keys, Meyer says. “We were trying to answer the big question: Is this a sign of early dementia? That’s what everyone’s afraid of.” 

Meyer used two standard tests of cognitive performance – one a symbol-recognition quiz that tests perceptual speed, the other a working-memory exercise requiring subjects to remember a sequence of numbers and repeat it in reverse order – to evaluate 803 women ages 42 to 52. Meyer explains that losses in perceptual speed and working memory are “usually early markers of dementia and cognitive decline.” 

Participants, all of whom were either pre-menopausal or in perimenopause (the transition period during which menopausal symptoms appear even as menstruation continues) at the study’s start, were evaluated annually for five years. The results of the study appeared recently in the journal Neurology

To his surprise, Meyer says, “in fact, we found modest improvement” in women’s scores overall. Meyer says this result suggests that during menopause, “you think differently, but you don’t necessarily think worse.” 

“The strength of our study was not to say that no women experience a decline,” Meyer says. “But on average, is this menopause-related memory loss? Something that’s affecting women en masse? The answer is no.” 

Meyer acknowledges that his study leaves unanswered the big question: If it’s not dementia, then just what is the cause of menopausal forgetfulness? He suggests that normal midlife stress and even depression may play a role, but he can’t say for sure. 

“We just answered a very simple question,” Meyer says. “It’s an important contribution, but we shouldn’t blow it out of proportion.”

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