Study on preventing memory loss in seniors seeks participants

- By Michelle Brandt

Victor Henderson

Victor Henderson

We’ve all heard references to “senior moments,” but does growing older have to mean also becoming forgetful? Stanford University School of Medicine’s Victor Henderson, MD, doesn’t think so, and he is investigating ways to prevent memory loss among seniors.

In a new study, Henderson and colleagues are testing whether specific group activities can impact cognitive function. The researchers are now looking for older adults to participate in their pilot study.

Previous studies have shown that performing certain physical and mental activities and engaging in social activities may help lower the risk of mental decline among seniors. Last year, for example, research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting showed that older adults who read books, played games and did craft activities were 30 to 50 percent less likely to develop memory loss compared with people who didn’t engage in those activities.

Henderson, a professor of health research and policy and of neurology and neurological sciences, has long been interested in risk factors and therapies for dementia and age-related cognitive decline. For this work, he decided to compare the potential memory-boosting benefits of tai chi, a Chinese martial arts form that has been called “mediation in motion;” guided autobiography writing, during which participants produce a written record of their past; and seminars focused on healthy aging. “We were looking for innovative activities that would be engaging and somewhat complex,” said Henderson. “The focus is on having participants learn a new skill or something useful.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that tai chi can help improve memory, and a small Stanford study also showed it might boost mental capacity. But, Henderson said, this study marks the first time that tai chi, or guided writing, have been looked at in this context.

During the study, 108 healthy adults over the age of 70 will be randomized to participate in tai chi or guided autobiography writing, attend a weekly session on healthy aging, or do a combination of tai chi and writing. Participants will attend group sessions for the first six months and, if assigned to tai chi or writing, encouraged to continue the practice at home with scheduled phone calls. They will be assessed in the beginning of the study, and again at six and 12 months.

If results from this pilot study appear promising, Henderson said, he plans to conduct larger trials on the specific intervention.

Participants in this study must be age 70 or older with a relatively inactive lifestyle. They must be able to travel to Stanford for classes and must not be limited in their ability to participate in light exercise or to write. Adults with dementia are not eligible for the trial. Those interested in volunteering or obtaining more information about the trial should call (650) 721-3308 or e-mail

The research is being funded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

About Stanford Medicine

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2024 ISSUE 1

Psychiatry’s new frontiers