MORE THAN 2-MILLION PEOPLE AGE 65 AND OLDER suffer from depression, including 50 percent of those living in nursing homes. The suicide rate among white men over 85 is the highest in the country.
How to help elderly depressed individuals?
Researchers at UCLA turned to a gentle, Westernized version of tai chi chih, a 2,000-year-old Chinese martial art. When they combined a weekly tai chi exercise class with a standard depression treatment for a group of depressed elderly adults, they found greater reduction in the level of depression – along with improved quality of life, better memory and cognition, and more overall energy – than among a different group in which the standard treatment was paired with a weekly health-education class.
“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,” says Helen Lavretsky, M.D., director of UCLA’s Late-Life Depression, Stress and Wellness Research Program. “We know that nearly two-thirds of elderly patients who seek treatment for their depression fail to achieve relief with a prescribed medication.”
The study, which was published in the online edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, looked at 112 adults age 60 or older with major depression. The participants were treated with the drug escitalopram, a standard antidepressant, for approximately four weeks, and 73 participants who showed only partial improvement continued to receive the medication daily but were also randomly assigned to 10 weeks of either a tai chi class or a health-education class for two hours per week each.
While both groups showed improvement in the severity of depression, greater reductions were seen among those taking escitalopram and participating in tai chi, Dr. Lavretsky says.
“Depression can lead to serious consequences, including greater morbidity, disability, mortality and increased cost of care,” Dr. Lavretsky says. “This study shows that adding a mind-body exercise like tai chi that is widely available in the community can improve the outcomes of treating depression in older adults, who may also have other co-existing medical conditions or cognitive impairment.
“With tai chi,” she says, “we may be able to treat these conditions without exposing these older adults to additional medications.”