With more than 2 million people age 65 and older suffering from depression in the U.S., including half of those living in nursing homes, effectively treating the elderly is a growing problem – especially as the numbers of seniors rise.
Researchers at UCLA found that an ancient martial art can help significantly.
When a gentle, Westernized version of tai chi chih was combined with a standard drug treatment for a group of depressed elderly adults, researchers found greater improvement 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,” said first author Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor-in-residence of psychiatry.
“We know that nearly two-thirds of elderly patients who seek treatment for their depression fail to achieve relief with a prescribed medication.”
In the study, 112 adults age 60 or older with major depression were treated with the drug escitalopram (brand name Lexapro), a standard antidepressant, for approximately four weeks. From among those participants, 73 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 for two hours per week or a health education class for two hours per week.
All the participants were evaluated for their levels of depression, anxiety, resilience, health-related quality of life, cognition and immune system inflammation at the beginning of the study and again four months later.
The level of depression among each participant was assessed using a common diagnostic tool known as the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, which involves interviewing the individual. The questions are designed to gauge the severity of depression. A cut-off score of 10/11 is generally regarded as appropriate for the diagnosis of depression.
The researchers found that among the tai chi participants, 94 percent achieved a score of less than 10, with 65 percent achieving remission (a score of 6 or less). By comparison, among participants who received health education, 77 percent achieved scores of 10 or less, with 51 percent achieving remission.
While both groups showed improvement in the severity of depression, greater reductions were seen among those taking escitalopram and participating in tai chi.
“Depression can lead to serious consequences, including greater morbidity, disability, mortality and increased cost of care,” Lavretsky said. “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 said, “we may be able to treat these conditions without exposing them to additional medications.”
The results of the study appear in the current online edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.