Jillian L. Capodice, LAc examines how acupuncture and TCM may affect age related diseases and conditions.

by Jillian L. Capodice, LAc

Aging is a normal part of the human lifecycle. As humans live longer and age distribution in populations shift, increased attention has been placed on the health concerns of an aging population. Just this past week, a report by the Health and Welfare Ministry found that there are now 36,276 centenarians (over 100 years of age) in Japan and that 86% of them are women; this was a rise of 4,000 from last year’s figure1. Moreover, longer life expectancies in Asian countries have been demonstrated by population statistics and epidemiological studies have shown differences in the prevalence of certain diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular health in Asian countries versus countries in the West.

Current life expectancies according to the United Nations for selected countries are as follows:2


































South Africa



Saudi Arabia















South Korea






In the United States, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) provides information and tips on healthy aging as it relates to diseases and conditions, care giving, medications, diet, and dietary supplements. NIA also funds clinical research on human volunteers that will look at addressing disparities and concerns in health, health outcomes and other issues facing an aging population3.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has a website that provides information on the health of older Americans4. Internationally, many countries offer reference material on health and aging. Certain health conditions that may affect the aging adult include:

  • Aging and cardiovascular health
  • Aging and the senses:  vision, hearing
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Depression and mental health
  • Diabetes and metabolic disorder
  • Flu
  • High blood pressure
  • Memory loss and other cognitive decline
  • Osteoporosis
  • Prostate problems
  • Stroke
  • Urinary incontinence

So what does this mean for the Integrative/CAM Practitioner?

For one thing, many complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices and products are oriented around holistic theory; the idea that a person’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health are all factors when it comes to disease and the treatment of diseases. Second, many CAM practices and whole medical systems focus on the idea of health prevention and health maintenance.

In the case of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), its foundations, qi, yin and yang are fundamentally rooted in holistic theory. For example, properties of yin and yang include:

  • the two energies
  • Yin and yang cannot exist without each other

More specific to aging, TCM views aging as a decline of and disharmony between qi and xue (blood) and that balancing these disharmonies can help to combat certain diseases, maintain good health, and promote longevity. For example a classic textbook, the Ling Shu states:

“If xue and qi triumph in the body, longevity results.

If they do not triumph, there will be early death”5

Thus, TCM treatment of aging is based on the ability to diagnose xue and qi stasis, treat stasis by nourishing the spirit, quickening xue and qi and balancing the individual so they will remain healthy. Treatment utilizing acupuncture and related TCM modalities such as moxibustion, cupping, Chinese herbal medicine, Tai Chi/Qi Gong are just a few of the modalities used to combat aging and treat disease.

Now, if we look back at some of the conditions listed above and the current literature, a fair number of studies being done in order to ascertain how acupuncture and TCM may affect age related diseases and conditions.

Acupuncture and cognitive function

A recent study by Cheng H et al tested acupuncture and sham acupuncture on a mouse model of cognitive impairment called the senescence-accelerated mouse prone 8 (SAMP8). 

Their experimental design examined acupuncture vs non-acu points in the SAMP8 mice vs 2 additional control groups of non-SAMP8 mice in order to investigate differences in behavioral changes and brain cell events between the mouse models and between those mice that received acupuncture.

The authors treated mice with acupuncture daily for 15 days and then injected them with 5′-bromo-2′-deoxyuridine (BrdU) before subjecting them to behavioral tests such as maze tests, and hidden platform tests. After they euthanized the animals according to standard institutional policy, the brains were dissected and BrdU proliferation in various areas of the brain was measured.

Some of the results were as follows: decreased proliferation in dentate gyrus (DG) evident in SAMP8 control mice was conversely enhanced in the SAMP8 mice receiving acupuncture (P<0.01). There were no significant differences found in ventricular/subventricular zones (VZ/SVZ) of the third ventricle (V3) and lateral ventricle (LV) between groups and finally, distribution of newly proliferated cells was present along the dorsum of alveus hippocampi (Alv), extending from LV to corpus callosum (CC), in the acupuncture treated mice.6

While more studies need to be done, the results from this study suggest that acupuncture regulates cell proliferation in SAMP8 mice and may contribute to cognitive improvement in these animals.

Two other mouse studies looked at gene regulation in mouse models of aging following acupuncture administration and demonstrated changes in gene expression in animals treated with acupuncture7,8. While these and other animal studies cannot translate to human outcomes they begin to peak our interest on how acupuncture may modulate neurological changes associated with aging.

Acupuncture and osteoarthritis

A landmark study published in 2004 demonstrated that acupuncture provides pain relief and improves function in people with osteoarthritis of the knee and serves as an effective complement to standard care. This study by Berman B et al was the largest Phase III clinical trial of acupuncture for knee osteoarthritis9. The press release put out by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) can be read here:  http://nccam.nih.gov/news/2004/acu-osteo/pressrelease.htm

Tai Chi and aging

Finally, I looked into the literature on Tai Chi and aging and found some interesting new studies. Kerr C et al recently published an analysis of tactile acuity in subjects practicing Tai Chi (TC)10. The goal of the study was to discover whether practitioners’ specific attention to the body’s extremities enhanced tactile spatial acuity.  Secondary goals were to look at practice in older versus younger subjects. It was demonstrated that tactile acuity was significantly better in the TC group versus controls (p=0.04) and there was a trend toward significance for the interaction of age and treatment group [F(1,24) = 3.7, P = 0.066]. While the authors point out a number of limitations in the study, the results point to the fact that TC does increase sensory perception and that determining if there is a central mechanism related to age related decline (with regard to tactile acuity) needs further research10.


A growing world-wide aging population has brought health and medical issues of aging people to the forefront of research. TCM, a whole medical system, is oriented in a holistic framework that views aging by the relationship of the vital substances (qi and xue (blood) to one another and how they change over time. Various acupuncture and related TCM modalities such as Tai Chi are being studied with regard to their potential impact in conditions related to aging such as cognition and osteoarthritis. From an integrative perspective, more research needs to be done to determine if acupuncture and TCM may help conditions and diseases related to aging and help us to achieve good health and well-being.


1.  Accessed September 14, 2008 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7612363.stm.

2.  United Nations Statistics. Accessed September 14, 2008 at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/socind/health.htm.

3.  The US NIH National Institute on aging. Accessed September 14, 2008 at http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/

4.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Healthy Aging Program. Accessed September 14, 2008 at http://www.cdc.gov/aging/index.htm.

5.  Aging and Blood Stasis. Yan, DX. Blue Poppy Press, 1995. Pages 25-35.

6. Cheng H, Yu J, Jiang Z, Zhang X, Liu C, Peng Y, Chen F, Qu Y, Jia Y, Tian Q, Xiao C, Chu Q, Nie K, Kan B, Hu X, Han J. Acupuncture improves cognitive deficits and regulates the brain cell proliferation of SAMP8 mice Neurosci Lett. 2008 Feb 20;432(2):111-6.

7. Yu J, Yu T, Han J. Aging-related changes in the transcriptional profile of cerebrum in senescence-accelerated mouse (SAMP10) is remarkably retarded by acupuncture. Acupunct Electrother Res. 2005;30(1-2):27-42.

8. Ding X, Yu J, Yu T, Fu Y, Han J. Acupuncture regulates the aging-related changes in gene profile expression of the hippocampus in senescence-accelerated mouse (SAMP10).  Neurosci Lett. 2006 May 15;399(1-2):11-6.

9. Berman BM, Lao L, Langenberg P, Lee WL, Gilpin AMK, Hochberg MC. Effectiveness of Acupuncture as Adjunctive Therapy in Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2004; 141(12):901-910.

10. Kerr CE, Shaw JR, Wasserman RH, Chen VW, Kanojia A, Bayer T, Kelley JM. Tactile acuity in experienced Tai Chi practitioners: evidence for use dependent plasticity as an effect of sensory-attentional training. Exp Brain Res. 2008 Jun;188(2):317-22.

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