Loneliness and chronic stress are a way of life for some older adults, who are often increasingly isolated as they age. They also often have increased levels of inflammation, which has been linked with chronic psychological stress and social isolation.

A new research study by David Black, PhD, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, shows that tai chi, a mind-body exercise using slow and focused movements, helps to control stress among the elderly participants and dampens the activity of a complex of proteins that play a role in regulating responses to stress.

Black along with collaborators at UCLA put 26 elderly people who scored high on loneliness through a 12-week course where they either attended tai chi classes for two hours a week or received health education. Before and after their visits, participants underwent psychological stress assessments and gave blood samples, which were analyzed for the presence of nuclear factor kappa beta (NF-kB), a mediator in the translation of stress into inflammation.

The group that participated in tai chi showed significantly lower levels of psychological stress and the level of NF-kB in their blood samples remained constant. The stress level of the control group increased, on the other hand, as did their level of activated NF-kB.

This is the first study to show that tai chi can reduce stress among socially isolated older adults as well as to attenuate the rate of increase of NF-kB.

“Tai chi is a relatively simple, low cost mind-body practice that may help older people better cope with stressors as they encounter feelings of loneliness in older adulthood,” said Black.

— By Hope Hamashige