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Aging Well: Memory and Movement
Timeless Tai Chi

Over 30 percent of people age 65 and older fall at least one time per year. Those falls result in more than 300,000 hip fractures annually and cost the U.S. economy an estimated $10 billion every year. They also represent the largest cause of death among the elderly.

Is a heightened risk of falling something we just have to accept as one of the many potential hazards of aging or is there anything we can do to prevent it? Research underway since 1990 shows that in fact there's quite a lot that can be done, and it involves the practice of Tai Chi, a martial art that's been around, in China at least, since as early as the third century.

Practitioners of Tai Chi move through a sequence of postures, as many as 108 and some with exotic names like "White Crane Spreads Wings." As students become more proficient in Tai Chi's fluid moves, they perform them without stopping, leading many to describe it as swimming on dry land. Dr. Steven Wolf of Emory University in Atlanta, prompted by a faculty colleague who also happened to be a Tai Chi grandmaster, wondered how these fluid movements that have been used in China for thousands of years might play a role in combating the frailty associated with old age.

In 1996 he reported findings that were part of an eight-site study that showed Tai Chi to reduce the risk of multiple falls among the elderly by 48 percent. Wolf's study examined 180 participants, all age 70 and older, who were divided into three groups, one of which received 15 weeks of Tai Chi training. Of the two other groups, one served as a control taking classes in behavior modification, while the other received static balance training on a balance platform.

With the help of Tingsen Xu (pronounced "shoe") an associate professor at Emory who has been a student of Tai Chi for more than 50 years, Wolf took the 108 positions of Tai Chi and synthesized them into 10 moves that represented the movements most often compromised in elders--those of trunk and body rotation. They were taught to the study group at a rate of one move per week.

According to Wolf, Tai Chi contributes to markedly reducing the numbers of falls among the elderly because it:

  • Improves balance by teaching how to rotate the body slowly and walk with a narrower stance
  • Helps people recognize their limits of stability
  • Provides a slow but rhythmic sense of movement that enables people to recover their balance before a fall occurs
  • Improves concentration to make elderly people more aware of movements they used to take for granted

There are other benefits that accrue from the practice of Tai Chi as well. Decreased blood pressure for one. But it may be the more intangible results that are the more important, such as reinstilling a sense of confidence in movement that in turn promotes a confidence that can lead to a feeling of living a more independent and thus more fulfilling life.

Martha Moline, for example, is 88. She injured her left knee in a fall in 1981. Then in 1994 she broke the same leg, eventually getting back to walking with a cane after arduous physical therapy. For a few years now she has been participating in twice-weekly Tai Chi classes. "My knee still gives me problems, but there is such a difference in how I can move it. I associate this with all of this 'oiling of the joints,' all of these motions that we do. My body feels stronger, and this leg feels really strong again. My sense of balance is better, too. If you have the opportunity to take Tai Chi lessons, by all means, do it."

Body & Soul is currently airing Monday-Friday at 7:00pm and 8:30pm on PBS YOU.

Program Description
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.
Timeless Tai Chi
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