Depression is a widespread problem among the elderly, with more than 2 million sufferers 65 and older in the United States alone. It makes sense that seniors are at a higher risk for depression since they frequently have at least one chronic health issue and depression is much more common in those with a physical illnesses.
But now, it seems, tai chi just might be the ticket to helping older adults keep depression at bay. Recent research at the University of California Los Angeles found that taking weekly tai chi classes decreased the seniors’ incidence of depression significantly.
Tai chi is an ancient martial arts practice that originated in China and has evolved into a flowing series of postures and movements. It’s a very gentle, stretching-based form of exercise that is ideal even for senior citizens.
The participants of the study were 112 individuals 60 or older who had been diagnosed with depression. They were all placed on drug therapy with a commonly prescribed antidepressant called escitalopram. After about a month on the medication, those who showed some signs of improvement — 73 of the volunteers — were kept on the drugs but also assigned to a class. One group began a tai chi class that met for two hours each week and the other group was placed in a health education class for two hours a week.
Each of the subjects was evaluated for not only depression, but anxiety, health-related quality of life issues, cognitive function, resilience, and immune-system inflammation at the start of the research and at its completion, four months later. The clinical test used, the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, which suggests that those with a score of 10-11 or above are experiencing depression.
Of the participants taking the health class, 77 percent scored 10 or less, with 51 percent achieving remission with a score of 6 or less. In contrast, of the tai chi participants, 94 percent scored less than 10, with 65 percent achieving remission. Regularly taking the tai chi class clearly made a difference and helped alleviate the subjects’ depression — a much better result than from drugs alone. The lead author of the study, Dr. Helen Lavretsky said, “We know that nearly two-thirds of elderly patients who seek treatment for their depression fail to achieve relief with a prescribed medication.”1
And tai chi has many other proven benefits as well, especially for the elderly. Since falls are a dangerous trauma for those over the age of 65, with more elderly people dying from falling each year than any other type of injury, it’s essential to promote activities that improve balance. For instance, in a study with 256 senior citizen participants, half took tai chi classes three times a week and the other half took stretching classes. After six months, the tai chi group had 28 recorded falls, whereas the stretching group had 74. Balance is improved because tai chi involves synchronized movements that engage a mind-body connection as well as moving while concentrating on breathing or an image.
Tai chi, which places even less stress on joints than yoga, is also a great source of relief from arthritis pain. Targeting a variety of joints and muscle groups, many arthritis victims report that their pain begins to dissipate after just a few minutes of the exercise. Studies have shown that seniors with arthritis who took tai chi classes experienced improved flexibility and attitude, better overall mobility, improved ability to perform physical activity, stronger muscles, improved range of motion, and reduced pain.
Even if you’re nowhere near senior citizen status yet, tai chi is an exercise form you can practice all your life. Good for the mind and the body, it’s a physical activity that will help keep you feeling healthy for years to come. It’s no wonder the Chinese have stuck with tai chi for 2,000 years. Then again, the depression relieving benefits of tai chi reported in the study are hardly unique to tai chi. Previous studies have found that 30 minutes of plain old mainstream exercise three times a week is actually more effective than pharmaceutical drugs at relieving depression. Maybe the real message to be drawn from the study is “move or cry.”
1 Wheeler, Mark. “Tai chi beats back depression in the elderly, study shows.” UCLA Newsroom. 16 March 2011. University of California. 22 March 2011. <http://www.newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/tai-chi-beats-back-depression-199019.aspx>.