|Tai Chi Boosts Immunity to Shingles Virus in
Older Adults, NIH-Sponsored Study Reports
Tai Chi, a traditional Chinese form of exercise, may help older
adults avoid getting shingles by increasing immunity to varicella-zoster
virus (VZV) and boosting the immune response to varicella vaccine
in older adults, according to a new study published in print this
week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
This National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study is the first
rigorous clinical trial to suggest that a behavioral intervention,
alone or in combination with a vaccine, can help protect older
adults from VZV, which causes both chickenpox and shingles.
The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging
(NIA) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative
Medicine (NCCAM), both components of NIH. The study’s print publication
follows its online release in March. The research was conducted
by Michael R. Irwin, M.D., and Richard Olmstead, Ph.D., of the
University of California at Los Angeles, and Michael N. Oxman,
M.D., of the University of California at San Diego and San Diego
Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.
“One in five people who have had chickenpox will get shingles
later in life, usually after age 50, and the risk increases as
people get older,” says NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “More
research is needed, but this study suggests that the Tai Chi intervention
tested, in combination with immunization, may enhance protection
of older adults from this painful condition.”
“Dr. Irwin’s research team has demonstrated that a centuries-old
behavioral intervention, Tai Chi, resulted in a level of immune
response similar to that of a modern biological intervention, the
varicella vaccine, and that Tai Chi boosted the positive effects
of the vaccine,” says Andrew Monjan, Ph.D., chief of the NIA’s
Neurobiology of Aging Branch.
The randomized, controlled clinical trial included 112 healthy
adults ages 59 to 86 (average age of 70). Each person took part
in a 16-week program of either Tai Chi or a health education program
that provided 120 minutes of instruction weekly. Tai Chi combines
aerobic activity, relaxation and meditation, which the researchers
note have been reported to boost immune responses. The health education
intervention involved classes about a variety of health-related
After the 16-week Tai Chi and health education programs, with
periodic blood tests to determine levels of VZV immunity, people
in both groups received a single injection of VARIVAX, the chickenpox
vaccine that was approved for use in the United States in 1995.
Nine weeks later, the investigators did blood tests to assess each
participant’s level of VZV immunity, comparing it to immunity at
the start of the study. All of the participants had had chickenpox
earlier in life and so were already immune to that disease.
Tai Chi alone was found to increase participants’ immunity to
varicella as much as the vaccine typically produces in 30- to 40-year-old
adults, and Tai Chi combined with the vaccine produced a significantly
higher level of immunity, about a 40 percent increase, over that
produced by the vaccine alone. The study further showed that the
Tai Chi group’s rate of increase in immunity over the course of
the 25-week study was double that of the health education (control)
group. The Tai Chi and health education groups’ VZV immunity had
been similar when the study began.
In addition, the Tai Chi group reported significant improvements
in physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality and mental health.
Both groups showed significant declines in the severity of depressive
“This study builds upon preliminary research funded by NCCAM,
and we are delighted to see this rigorous trial of Tai Chi for
varicella zoster immunity come to fruition,” said Ruth L. Kirschstein,
M.D., NCCAM Acting Director. Shingles, or herpes zoster, affects
the nerves, resulting in pain and blisters in adults. Following
a case of chickenpox, a person’s nerve cells can harbor the varicella-zoster
virus. Years later, the virus can reactivate and lead to shingles.
More information about shingles is available from the NIA at http://www.niapublications.org/agepages/shingles.asp and
a website for older adults developed by the NIA and the National
Library of Medicine, also a part of NIH. More information on Tai
Chi can be found on NCCAM’s website at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/taichi/.
To reach Dr. Michael Irwin, University of California at Los Angeles,
contact Mark Wheeler at 310-794-2265 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research
on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older
people. For more information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov.
Publications on research and on a variety of topics of interest
on health and aging can be viewed and ordered by visiting the NIA
website or can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-222-2225.
The NCCAM’s mission is to explore complementary and alternative
medical (CAM) practices in the context of rigorous science, train
CAM researchers, and disseminate authoritative information to the
public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM’s
Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit www.nccam.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.