Tai chi, an ancient exercise that features slow martial arts-like movements and 1 meditation, is one method used to prevent the pain and misery of shingles.

A new study finds that by itself, t'ai chi triggers an immune-boosting response in older people to fight the virus causing shingles that is on par with the standard vaccine.

When t'ai chi is coupled with a vaccine, immunity is strengthened even more-to levels normally seen in middle age, say researchers after studying the effects of both measures in 112 people ages 59 to 86.

Virus-Specific Protection

"Since older adults often show blunted protective responses to vaccines, this study suggests that t'ai chi is an approach that might complement and augment the efficacy of other vaccines, such as influenza," notes study lead Dr. Michael Irwin, professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Shingles, which causes a painful and blistery rash, affects about one in three people after age 60. It is caused by the same virus as childhood chicken pox, often lying dormant for decades before reemerging in later years.

Explanation: Irwin says that t'ai chi—often recommended to help reduce stress and improve flexibility—strengthens specific immune-boosting cells that are especially useful at fighting recurrences of previously experienced infections that may lie dormant for decades. However, these cells typically die off as part of the natural aging process, explaining why previous infections (such as chicken pox) can return with a vengeance in older people (as shingles).

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