Study: Tai Chi Helps Fight Depression Among the Elderly

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Senior man and woman practicing tai chi on beach, side view

Save the karate for the kids. To stave off depression among the elderly, a new study proposes the practice of a gentler martial art — tai chi.

In a study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, UCLA researchers led by psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky reported treating 112 participants with major depression, aged 60 years and older, with the antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) for four weeks. The 73 who responded to the drug continued to receive it for 10 more weeks and were randomly assigned to two hours a week of health education or tai chi. All the respondents were evaluated for their anxiety, resilience, health-related quality of life, cognition, immune-system inflammation and levels of depression at the start of the study and four months later.

The study found that compared with taking the health education class (which included some stretching exercises), performing the ancient Chinese mind-body exercise of tai chi while taking escitalopram helped more adults reduce their depressive symptoms and achieve remission; it also improved quality of life, memory, cognition and overall energy levels. “This is the first study to demonstrate the benefits of tai chi in the management of late-life depression, and we were encouraged by the results,” said Lavretsky in a press statement. “With tai chi, we may be able to treat these conditions without exposing [patients] to additional medications.”

These results should come as good news to the more than 2 million elderly Americans suffering from depression who are in much need of effective treatment. As the authors put it in their article:

Depression in older adults carries significant risk for decline in health functioning, morbidity, and mortality, including suicide. Despite the gains in the treatment of major depression, more than 60% of elderly patients treated for depression fail to achieve symptomatic remission and functional recovery with first-line pharmacotherapy. Older patients with depression are reported to have more physical illness and chronic pain; frailty; psychomotor retardation; or agitation, anxiety, cognitive impairment, anorexia, or weight loss than younger depressed adults… Treatments are needed that can complement and add to the benefit of pharmacotherapy, in order for depressed older adults to achieve remission, experience lower rates of residual depressive symptoms, and enjoy the benefits of decreased disability and improved social and health functioning.

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