Tai Chi vs. Depression in the Elderly
by Helen Reason

Depression is one of the the two most common mental conditions affecting Americans, the other being anxiety. A person facing depression can find that they have little motivation, intense feelings of sadness and even suicidal thoughts. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance notes that major depression affects approximately 14.8 million American adults and as many as one in 33 children and one in eight teens. The condition not only wrests significantly from the quality of life of those affected, but also poses a heavy economic burden for public and private health. The Affordable Care Act improved the quality of mental health care to some extent, although too many cases of depression are not diagnosed or treated, resulting in serious complications which can put patients’ lives at risk.

While depression can strike at any age, it is particularly common among the elderly, who can feel alone, or who can be grieving the loss of a spouse or friends. Within this group, both depression and anxiety are often under-diagnosed and left untreated, sometimes because doctors assume that symptoms are related to general ageing and/or expected cognitive decline.

Some of the most effective treatments against depression include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), inpatient rehabilitation treatment for those who are also battling substance abuse and alcoholism, and group therapy. However, in numerous mental health and rehabilitation centers, so-called ‘alternative treatments’ such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, are proving to be highly successful at battling stress and instilling a sense of calm.

One study, published recently in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that Tai Chi in particular has many benefits in the management of later-life depression. In the study, a group of 112 adults aged 60 and above were treated with a standard anti-depressant drug, for a month-long period. Within this group, 73 persons who only improved partially continued to take their daily medication, but were also randomly assigned to either 10 weeks of Tai Chi classes (two hours weekly) or a health education class (also two hours a week).

At the beginning and end of the study period, participants were tested to ascertain their levels of depression, anxiety, quality of life, cognitive ability and immune system inflammation. Researchers relied on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, which comprises questions aimed at ascertaining the level of depression. Those who score 10/11 on the scale, are considered as having depression. The researchers found that an impressive 94 per cent of those who had taken part in the Tai Chi classes, achieved a score of less than 10, with 65 per cent going into remission. Among those who only attended health education classes, on the other hand, only 77 per cent achieved a score of 10 or less, and only 55 per cent went into remission.

Both groups clearly showed improvements in symptoms of depression, yet the results of the Tai Chi group led researchers to recommend this activity for older adults, especially those who may have concurrent physical ailments or mental conditions.

In other studies, Tai Chi has been found to increase brain size and improve cognition. Scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai, for instance, found that seniors who took part in Tai Chi classes three times a week had improved scores in memory and thinking tests. Their findings led them to conclude that devastating mental illnesses such as dementia can be delayed through physical activity, particularly holistic activities like Tai Chi. These activities, which employ slow, synchronized movement and breathing, have been found to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol.

One important review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, meanwhile, found that Tai Chi helps prevent falls and improves mental wellbeing as a whole. Considering that it is also an activity that can be adapted to various fitness levels, it is ideal for elderly individuals who may not have been very physically active in their younger years, as well as those who may be battling other illnesses. Other natural stress busters such as yoga and mindfulness meditation should also be considered. Like Tai Chi, these ancient activities are inexpensive, yet highly effective at lowering levels of stress hormones. More importantly, they can aid with relaxation and soothe chronic pain, including migraines and lower back pain.

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