A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society investigates tai chi as a way to reduce the risk of falling among older adults. This ancient art could help to improve the lives of modern at-risk individuals.
Falls are a serious risk for older adults. According to the National Council on Aging, falls are the “leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans.”
In the elderly population of the United States, 17.6 percent reported between one and five falls in the previous 3 months – 6 percent of which were serious.
Because of the size of the problem and the aging population of Western countries, a fair quantity of research has gone into identifying potential interventions that might help to minimize this worrying problem.
Earlier studies have shown that light physical activity can reduce the rate – but not necessarily the risk – of falls. A 2012 Cochrane review concluded, “Group and home-based exercise programs, usually containing some balance and strength training exercises, effectively reduced falls.”
Recently, researchers led by Rafael Lomas-Vega, Ph.D., of the University of Jaén in Spain, set out to analyze previous research investigating tai chi as a way of reducing falls in older adults.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice. Its exact origins are buried in the mists of time, but it may date back as far as the 12th century. Although initially created as a martial art, there are now a number of different forms.
In the West, the most familiar form is not focused on self-defense, consisting of slow, measured movements; it is designed to improve whole-body coordination and flexibility.
Because tai chi is said to improve balance, proprioception (a sense of one’s position in space), and flexibility, all while being low impact, it is the perfect candidate for use by older adults.
Although this intervention has been tested and reviewed before, earlier reviews had certain limitations. For instance, they did not analyze short-term and long-term effects, and they chose to focus on the number of fallers rather than an individual’s rate of falls.
The authors of the current study outline their focus:
“Considering the lack of available information […] the aim of the present systematic review was to investigate the most recent randomized controlled trials that analyze the effectiveness of tai chi on improving the falls rate, the rate of injurious falls, and the time to ﬁrst fall…”
In all, the team analyzed and combined data from 10 good quality studies. Interventions ranged from 12 to 26 weeks, and all involved 1-hour sessions that took place between one and three times per week. Participants were aged between 56 and 98. When compared with other activities, such as low-intensity exercise and physical therapy, tai chi fared well.
At short-term follow-up (under 12 months), tai chi reduced the rate of falls by 43 percent compared with other interventions, and by 13 percent in the longer-term (over 12 months).
When they investigated falls that caused an injury, the data were not quite as robust, but they calculated that tai chi reduced risk by 50 percent in the short-term and 28 percent over the long-term. However, tai chi did not seem to make a difference to when an individual was likely to have their first fall that caused an injury.
The current study adds to the evidence in support of tai chi as useful in protecting older adults from falls. However, the researchers are cautious. Prof. Lomas-Vega explains, “Due to the small number of published studies, further research is needed to investigate the effect of tai chi on injurious falls and time to first fall.”
Although the current study did not attempt to explain why tai chi is beneficial, it is likely to be due to a range of factors, which could include improvement in reaction time, a better and more stable gait, improved balance, and better balance recovery.
Because tai chi is low impact, simple, and cost-effective, it is an ideal intervention for use in care settings, in the community, and at home.