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How Tai Chi Could Ease Depression in the Elderly

Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.

Did you know that older people account for 16% of the suicides in this country? According to the National Council on Aging, people over the age of 85 have the highest rate of suicide, more than four times the rate of the general population. Two factors that contribute to depression in the elderly are loneliness and health problems.

Unfortunately, the anti-depressant drugs most doctors prescribe to treat depression can have serious side effects in older people. Elderly people who take these medications may experience confusion and constipation, and have an increased fall risk. While these side effects are generally mild and manageable, they can be more severe in some individuals.

Is there a natural way to treat depression in older people? Research suggests that tai chi could be of benefit to older people experiencing symptoms of depression.

What Is Tai Chi?

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice that involves slow, deliberate movements and deep breathing. The health benefits of tai chi are well-documented and include improved balance, flexibility, and mental well-being. The practice of tai chi has benefits for people of all ages but it’s especially beneficial for mind-body exercise for older people. The gentle movements are easy on the joints and it’s a low-impact form of exercise.

Tai Chi for Depression in the Elderly

According to new research published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, tai chi could be an effective treatment for depression in older people and it has other compelling health benefits as well.

Researchers gave 112 adults over the age of 60 who had been diagnosed with depression an antidepressant medication for a month. A portion of these seniors also took either a 10-week course of tai chi instruction for 2 hours a week or a health education class. Before taking the medication or attending the classes, the severity of their depression was evaluated by a standard depression scale–and then again 4 months later.

The results? Both groups were less depressed at the end of the study, but the older adults who participated in tai chi classes had a better outlook and fewer depressive symptoms. They concluded that the mind-body benefits of tai chi could be good medicine for older adults with depression.

Tai Chi Improves Flexibility

Tai has more than mental health benefits. It improves balance and flexibility, two areas that can be a problem for older folks. One study even showed that twice-weekly tai chi classes reduced the risk of falling among a group of elderly people.

Tai chi is also a good stress reliever and helps reduce minor pain associated with conditions such as osteoarthritis. Plus, tai chi is a safe form of exercise, although seniors with joint, spine, or heart problems should talk to their doctor before taking part in a tai chi class.

Depression Requires a Multi-Faceted Approach

Although Tai chi may be beneficial as a treatment for depression, psychologists point out that depression often requires more than one approach including counseling, medications, and other forms of therapy. So, tai chi could be part of a larger plan to help older people feel better and enjoy life more.

For some adults, health problems and chronic illness contribute to their depression, and treating those issues can help them have a brighter outlook. That’s why it’s important that all adults with symptoms of depression be evaluated and get appropriate treatment. Some health conditions and medications can cause depression too.

Tai Chi Has Mental and Physical Health Benefits

Tai chi has a variety of health benefits for seniors - and it may boost mental health too. It’s a gentle form of movement and participating in a Tai chi class allows participants a chance to socialize and avoid the problem of feeling isolated or alone.

As Psychology Today points out, older people need human contact for mental health. Tai chi offers gentle exercise, the chance to socialize, and an opportunity to engage the mind. It’s a way for older people, and those of all ages, to enjoy a gentle approach to fitness.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.