MU study shows tai chi might improve cognitive function after chemotherapy

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | 7:24 p.m. CDT; updated 12:14 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 16, 2011

COLUMBIA — About one-third of breast cancer patients experience a decrease in cognition that lasts beyond chemotherapy, and an MU pilot study has found that practicing tai chi as little as four hours a week can help.

Chemotherapy can negatively affect cognition, including memory and concentration, said Stephanie Reid-Arndt, the MU researcher who conducted the study.

The cause of cognitive decline is not understood, Reid-Arndt said, but other current research is trying to understand the nature of the decline and its causes.

For now, though, patients need a solution, and that's what this study focuses on, she said.

The results are based on 23 patients who practiced tai chi for 10 weeks.

Kathy Windmoeller was diagnosed with the most common kind of breast cancer, intraductal breast cancer, in January 1999 and began chemotherapy the following month. She said she didn't notice a decline in her cognitive skills right away but realized one day that she was locking her keys in the car, forgetting everyday tasks and losing track of time. Windmoeller said she started asking people to give her reminders, making lists and placing sticky notes everywhere to try to solve the problems.

Like the other participants in the MU study, she had never tried tai chi before.

"The tai chi itself, it definitely does work on your balance, and it works on your memory because it's a pattern, and you need to remember the pattern," Windmoeller said. "It's a very gentle, calming, good exercise."

Windmoeller said she saw improvement in her balance while she was practicing tai chi but not in her cognition. The classes also offered her the opportunity to form new friendships.

"I really enjoyed the tai chi, very much, but I think the thing that was really nice that came out of it was the camaraderie that developed between the participants," Windmoeller said. "I don't know why, but everybody just clicked, and we became good friends, and that was an added bonus on top of whatever it was doing for us physically and mentally."

At this point, Reid-Arndt hasn’t eliminated other factors such as camaraderie or shared traumatic experience as contributing factors in patient improvements.

The next steps for the research will be more extensive testing that could weed out some of these other factors and then a comparison of the tai chi results with traditional, group-based support.

The study was funded through the MU School of Health Professions. Reid-Arndt said further testing is on hold until more funding is available.

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