There is no expiration date on neuroplasticity and being active is always a good thing. Traditional martial arts training has long been suggested as an activity to benefit folks across the lifespan and there are many anecdotal reports of practitioners at very advanced ages. I personally have met and trained with many martial arts masters who were in their late 70s to mid 80s. While physically slower, they displayed amazing timing and thus remained terrifying in their technical abilities.
Although we make a correlation, observing someone of advanced age doing an activity like martial arts doesn't really prove to us that the activity preserved their function. We need training interventions to prove that and training interventions for older adults have long been lacking. But the kind of evidence derived from training interventions is much more powerful than cross-sectional studies because they are direct tests of the training itself.
Which brings us back to researchers in Germany—Drs Petra Jansen, Katharina Dahmen-Zimmer and their colleagues Brigitte Kudielka and Anja Schulz—who have been conducting interesting intervention studies using karate training in older adults. I've written about this work previously, when Jahnsen and Dahmen-Zimmer showed that karate training in individuals as old as 93 years of age could improve cognition and emotional well being.
Their 2016 study "Effects of Karate Training Versus Mindfulness Training on Emotional Well-Being and Cognitive Performance in Later Life" published in "Research on Aging" looked at individuals between 52 and 81 years of age. The martial arts training was focused on forms (kata) practice using Shotokan's "Heian Shodan" (equivalent to "Pinan Nidan" in many other systems like Yuishinkai, Wado-ryu, etc.)
Researchers did a number of neuropsychological assessments on the study participants before training, as well as collecting samples of their hair to measure stress through cortisol levels. The karate group was then taught the "Heian Shodan" kata and self-defence applications over 16 one hour sessions (2 times each week for 8 weeks). Compared to the pre-intervention levels, the karate group improved in cognitive processing speed and subjective mental health and had reduced anxiety.
I have been interested in this work for a while and so I reached out to the lead authors, Petra and Katharina to ask a few additional questions about their motivations and the responses of the participants. As experimental psychologists, they said they want to do research to determine the brain benefits of physical training and activity. Katharina herself has trained for over 20 years and is a black belt holder in the Shotokan karate system. She has seen directly that training has many benefits in cognition and mindfulness in herself and others.
Petra shared that many participants say that "now I can do something, which is impossible for older people! I feel so strong, I feel more safe...". Katharina also echoed this concept when telling me about an 80 year old who said "when I started to train in karate, my grandchildren said 'Grandma--you are crazy!' but now they are so proud of me." The positive effects of the training study have led many of the participants to continue training even after finishing the research.
These scientists also told me that, while they focus on specific activities (karate, mindfulness, etc) in their interventions, the key is for individuals to identify what works for them and "that which is best for themselves". This is a really important point and I think it fits with another point they emphasize, that training improves the body but also "self-esteem and this can have a really huge impact in older age".
Not surprisingly, I really like using karate kata training to help improve function in those with declining abilities. One of my first karate teachers, Shane Higashi Kyoshi, told me over 30 years ago that "karate isn't just to make those who are strong, stronger. It's supposed to help make weaker people stronger."
Oh, and the idea that karate kata training can help reduce stress and improve self-esteem and efficacy? It's rather poetic. The name of the kata used in these studies--"Heian"--means "peaceful and safe".
(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)