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Tai chi, a traditional Chinese form of exercise, boosts immunity to the painful shingles virus in older adults, according to a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and published this week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
It’s the first rigorous clinical trial to suggest that a behavioral intervention, alone or in combination with a vaccine, can help protect older adults from varicella-zoster virus, which causes both chickenpox and shingles.
The study appears in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and was led by Dr. Michael Irwin of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Shingles is a painful skin rash that can pop up in people who have had chickenpox. The chickenpox virus can remain dormant in the body and resurface as shingles years later. It usually starts with pain and itching on the skin that later turns into an irritating rash.
An estimated 1 million Americans are afflicted with shingles every year and it commonly occurs in people 50 years old and older.
The UCLA study involved 112 healthy adults, ages 59 to 86, who have had previous cases of chickenpox.
Half of them took tai chi classes three times a week for three months and the rest attended health education classes where they were taught good diet habits and stress management. Then both groups were vaccinated with a chickenpox vaccine. Researchers took periodic blood tests before and after vaccination to determine their level of immunity against shingles.
After six months, the tai chi group had nearly twice the level of immunity against shingles than the education group.
Those who performed tai chi before vaccination had an immune response that was similar to what a vaccine would produce in a younger population. Tai chi combined with the vaccine showed a 40 percent increase in immunity than the vaccine alone, researchers found.