Tai chi tied to reduced fall risk in older adults

(Reuters Health) - Seniors who practice tai chi - a Chinese meditation practice that combines deep breathing and slow, fluid movements - may be less likely to fall than their peers who don’t do this type of exercise, a recent study suggests.

Researchers examined data from 18 previously published trials of tai chi for fall prevention with a combined 3,824 participants aged 65 and older.

Tai chi was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of falling at least once and a 31 percent drop in the number of falls, the analysis found.

“This is a fairly significant finding because tai chi is an activity that can be easily taught and that people can do independently at home or at their workplace or at the retirement center on their own or in a group,” said Jean-Michel Brismee, a physical therapy researcher at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and University Medical Center in Lubbock.

“So in regard to cost and preserving independence and health it is significant because people do not have to go to the gym or a special facility as they can do it anywhere,” Brismee, who wasn’t involved in the study, added by email.

Worldwide, up to 40 percent of people over 65 and about half of people over 80 fall each year, researchers note in BMJ Open. Falls are often associated with considerable decline in mobility, independence and quality of life and are a leading cause of death in older adults.

For the study, Zhi-Guan Huang of Guangzhou Sport University in China and colleagues analyzed data from published trials that randomly assigned older adults to either receive tai chi lessons or join a control group that didn’t get this intervention.

Overall, 10 seniors would need to practice tai chi in order to avoid one fall, Huang and colleagues estimated.

When researchers accounted for how often seniors practiced tai chi, how much time they spent at it, the style of tai chi and the falling risk for individual patients, they still found these exercises associated with a lower risk of falling. Sometimes the fall risk appeared smaller but the difference between the tai chi groups and control groups was too small to rule out the possibility that it was due to chance, however.

Increasing the frequency of tai chi sessions from once a week to more than three times weekly was associated with a dramatic improvement in risk reduction, from 5 percent to 64 percent.

One limitation of the study is that it examined data from trials where participants knew what intervention was being tested and whether they received it, which has the potential to bias results, the authors note.

Even so, the results confirm previous research showing tai chi can improve balance, flexibility, strength of knee extension and reduce the risk of falls in older adults, said Dr. Chenchen Wang, director of the Center for Complimentary and Integrative Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

“Many important components include: exercise, breathing techniques, awareness of the body, focused attention, mindfulness, balance and function, visualization and relaxation,” Wang, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“These components also positively impact health by improving self-efficacy, psychosocial functioning, and depression and can help patients bolster self-confidence, which also helps balance and coordination to avoid falls,” Wang added.

The complex nature of tai chi exercise sequences can also support cognitive function because it requires steady effort to coordinate multiple movements at the same time, said Dr. Rome Lauche of the University of Technology in Sydney and the Australian Research Center in Complementary and Integrative Medicine.

“For frail elderly patients who can’t go to the gym and conduct conventional exercises, or those with a preference towards relaxing mind/body interventions, the slow and flowing nature of tai chi might be the right choice,” Lauche, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “For patients who have already fallen, it is important to undergo a medical examination first.”

SOURCE: BMJ Open, online February 6, 2017.