March 24, 2007 / 1:04 AM / 12 years ago

Tai chi boosts immune system against shingles

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A slow-movement form of exercise known as tai chi can strengthen the immune system in the elderly and boost the potency of a vaccine against the virus that causes shingles, researchers said on Friday.

They found that tai chi, a westernized version of the 2,000-year-old Chinese martial art, improved the immune system in the elderly against the painful, blistery rash that is caused by the same virus as chickenpox.

When tai chi, which involves a series of movements, was combined with a vaccine against shingles the immunity in the patients reached levels seen in younger people.

“These are exciting findings, because the positive results of this study also have implications for other infectious diseases like influenza and pneumonia,” said Professor Michael Irwin, lead author of the study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“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,” he added in a statement.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus. People who had chicken pox as children are susceptible to shingles. The virus can remain dormant in the body and as the immune system weakens with age it may cause shingles, which can be very painful and usually lasts three to five weeks.

About one third of adults over 60 years old will suffer from shingles, according to the researchers.

In a study published in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Irwin and his team compared 112 elderly people who took tai chi classes three times a week for 16 weeks and others who attended health education classes.

Both groups were also immunized with a dose of a shingles vaccine. At the end of the 25-week study the level of immunity of people who did tai chi was two times higher than the other group. They also functioned better physically and mentally.

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