Tai chi – the balance of youth

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tao chi balance of youth

The ageing body

As our bodies age, the first things we notice are usually superficial and seemingly cosmetic. We notice a few wrinkles here and there, the little pockets of fat in places that they shouldn't be, hair turning grey and thinning. Then suddenly, at about age 40, we can't seem to read the small print. In fact, the ageing body is probably the hottest topic in the developed world.  The murmurs of 'getting old' and 'ageing population' are buzzing everywhere - from internet chat rooms and cosmetic industry boardrooms, to medical departments and health policy working groups.

One of the more serious side effects of ageing is the risk of falling.  More than 37 million people in the world suffer some kind of serious fall every year. Balance is a major health issue in an ageing population.  As we age, our ability to sense when we are losing our balance declines.  Being able to balance requires a coordination of many different things. We need to be able to sense where our body is, using vision, sensors in muscles, tendons, joints, pressure on the soles of our feet - and it all has to be coordinated by the brain via the inner ear.  This information system begins to break down as we get older; and having been a triathlete or Olympic swimmer offers no golden guarantee that our sense of balance will be preserved.

Risk Factors for falls

It is not only the age of our body that increases our risk of falling, there are other factors that can make the situation worse - the most obvious aggravating factors are being overweight and lack of exercise.  Many commonly used medicines can have a considerable effect on our ability to balance, and most do not even require a prescription. Antihistamines for allergies and hay fever, common non steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for a simple headache, both of these groups of medicine affect our sense of balance.  Prescription drugs for high blood pressure, heart disease and antispasmodics also disrupt our sense of balance. Then there are the drugs such as sedatives, antidepressants and anti-anxiety that have a much more obvious effect on balance.

Other medical conditions can also increase the risk of having a fall. Neurological and cardiac conditions and any illness that affects cognition and vision carries a much greater risk of falling. Suffering from Parkinson's disease doubles the risk of falls, and the rate of falls in patients with MS can be as high as 70%.

New research shows integrating Tai chi is cost effective

New research shows that practising Tai chi improves balance, not only in the elderly but also in patients with Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson's disease. Here we report on the latest findings.

One for the health policy makers – introducing Tai chi or other Chinese medicine exercise such as Qi gong is more cost effective than simple exercise programmes for fall prevention. A study published in the Journal of Safety Research investigated the cost benefits of Tai chi. Researchers analysed data to define the annual medical costs of falls in the elderly.  Three different fall prevention activities were assessed – two different exercise programs (Otago and Stepping On) were compared to a Tai chi ‘Movement for Better Balance’ activity. Cost effectiveness was judged by a return on investment calculation of the amount of investment required against the savings in medical costs. All three activities offered considerable return on investment with Tai chi scoring the highest at a huge 509%.

Carandle-Kulis et al. a cost benefit analysis of three older adult fall prevention interventions. J Safety Res. Feb 2015.

Tai chi helping the elderly

A study in 2015 showed that one hour sessions of Tai chi, three times a week, for sixteen weeks, improved postural control and helped prevent falls in a group of elderly people. Another study analysed 7 randomized controls, totalling 1088 patients.  The patients were tested for the speed of 'get up and go', single leg stand test and the Berg balance test. The analysis concludes that Tai chi improved balance control ability, and flexibility in elderly adults.

Tai chi helping MS patients

Many multiple sclerosis patients suffer from a range of symptoms that include balance issues, fatigue and depression. Physical exercise and the practice of mindfulness have shown benefits for many MS patients.  A new study investigated the benefits of a Tai Chi training on coordination, balance, fatigue and depression in 32 MS patients. The volunteers participated in 90 minutes of Tai chi, twice a week, for six months and their improvements were compared to a control group that continued to receive only their normal treatments. Results showed that the Tai chi group had improvements in balance and coordination, lower levels of depression and increased life satisfaction compared to the control group. Interestingly, levels of fatigue remained stable in the Tai chi group but worsened in the control group.

Burschka et al. Mindfulness-based interventions in multiple sclerosis: beneficial effects of Tai Chi on balance, coordination, fatigue and depression. BMC Neurolog. aug 2014.

Thai chi helping patients with Parkinson's disease.

A new meta analysis published in the PLoS One medical journal concludes that integrating traditional Chinese Medical Exercise into the treatment plan for Parkinson's disease improves motor function and balance.

Yang et al. The efficacy of traditional Chinese Medical Exercise for Parkinson's disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One Apr 2015. 

Further reading:

Huang et al. Improvement of balance control ability and flexibility in the elderly Tai Chi Chuan practitioners: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Gerontol Geriatr Nov 2014.

Azimzadeh et al. Effect of Tai Chi Chuan on balance in women with multiple sclerosis. Complement Ther Clin Pract. Nov 27 2014.

Vallabhajosula et al. Tai chi intervention improves dynamic postural control during gait initiation in older adults: a pilot study. J Appl Biomech Dec 2014.

Kim et al. Tai Chi Exercise can Improve the Obstacle Negotiating Ability of People with Parkinson's disease. A preliminary study. J Phys Ther Sci. Jul 2014.





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