If you've gone to the park and seen people performing a series of graceful, slow-motion movements, you've seen tai chi. It's an ancient practice in which people slowly perform martial-arts motions. The practice fosters a calm and tranquil mind.
It also affects the body, reports Michael R. Irwin, MD, director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, in the September issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
"Shingles is a debilitating illness," Irwin tells WebMD. "There are no medical treatments to prevent shingles. No medical treatment has yet been shown to boost shingles immunity. This novel behavioral intervention -- tai chi -- may have those beneficial effects. And it looked to us that the people who practice tai chi had improved ability to carry out day-to-day activities like climbing steps, walking, and carrying packages."
Shingles Immunity and More
Anyone who's ever had chickenpox is at risk for shingles. The chickenpox virus -- varicella zoster virus -- never really goes away. It's a herpes virus, after all. It lies dormant in the nerves. When a person's immunity dips, the virus wakes and causes the painful sores called shingles.
Elderly people are at particular risk. That's why Irwin decided to measure shingles immunity in 36 men and women age 60 and older. Half of the people were assigned to a 15-week program of tai chi chih -- a simple, low-impact form of tai chi. The other half were put on a waiting list and asked to postpone starting any new meditation program for 15 weeks.
"In the tai chi group, we saw a 50% increase in the immune cells that remember the shingles virus," Irwin says. "People really had a doubling or so of their immunity." The increase is enough to actually help prevent shingles, he says.
The tai chi-practicing seniors also had better health function than the seniors waiting for tai chi training. Those whose health was most impaired when they started the practice saw the greatest improvements.
Tai chi for the elderly is an idea whose time has come, says Steven L. Wolf, PhD, PT, professor of rehabilitation medicine at Atlanta's Emory University. Wolf, too, studies the effects of tai chi. In 1996, he reported that elderly people who practice tai chi have a 48% lower risk of falls. But that's not the only benefit he and others have seen.
"It builds strength, endurance, mobility, balance, and cardiovascular health," Wolf says.
Now it may protect against shingles -- and more.
"We looked at memory immune function, immune cells that remember the varicella zoster virus," says Irwin. "But what we are really testing is overall immune memory and function. Since those memory cells are critical in a whole host of viral infections, I would expect these findings to generalize to other infections."