Seniors who practice tai chi regularly demonstrate improved arterial compliance (the ability of arteries to expand and contract with the pumping of the heart), as well as increased leg muscle strength, according to a Hong Kong study. Arterial compliance is an important predictor of cardiovascular health in the elderly and a therapeutic target for physical exercise in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Twenty-nine elderly subjects, who had practised tai chi for at least 1.5 hours a week for three years, were compared with 36 age-matched subjects with no tai chi experience. The tai chi practitioners scored better than controls in almost all haemodynamic parameters, including blood pressure, vascular resistance and pulse pressure. Previous studies have shown that strength training, which improves muscle function, is accompanied by a decline in arterial compliance. The authors conclude that the combined beneficial effects of tai chi on vascular health and muscle strength make it a good exercise strategy for older adults. (Tai Chi, arterial compliance, and muscle strength in older adults. Eur J Prev Cardiolog. 2012 Apr 4. [Epub ahead of print]).

Tai chi has a better impact on preventing falls in the elderly than conventional physiotherapy, perhaps because it leads to an increased sense of self-efficacy in practitioners. A Canadian team randomised 152 older adults to either supervised tai chi or usual physiotherapy. While both exercise programs significantly improved fall-related outcomes, only the tai chi intervention decreased the incidence of falls. Comparing clinical variables related to falls (e.g. balance, gait and fear of falling), both groups generally followed the same pattern, showing a significant improvement at the end of the intervention period .  Self-efficacy, however, was found to significantly improve only with the tai chi intervention. (The effect of supervised Tai Chi intervention compared to a physiotherapy program on fall-related finical outcomes: a randomized clinical trial. Disabil Rehabil. 2012;34(3):196-201).

Korean research suggests that tai chi can improve lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTSs), quality of life (QOL) and testosterone levels in patients with benign prostate hypertrophy (BPH). Fifty-six elderly patients with BPH were randomised to either 12 weeks of tai chi group or a control group. After 12 weeks of treatment, the tai chi group showed significant improvement in LUTS (34%) and QOL (24%), compared with baseline. In addition, the results showed a significant effect of tai chi on testosterone levels, but no significant effect on insulin or glucose. (Tai chi for lower urinary tract symptoms and quality of life in elderly patients with benign prostate hypertrophy: a randomized controlled trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:624692. Epub 2011 Oct 3).

Practising tai chi can lead to a reduction in levels of inflammatory markers in the blood of older adults. American researchers randomised 83 healthy older adults to 16 weeks of either tai chi chih (TCC) or health education (HE). In subjects who showed elevated circulating levels of the inflammatory marker interleukin 6 (IL-6) at baseline, TCC was able to reduce IL-6 to levels comparable with the lowest baseline measurements. Decreases in depressive symptoms in the two groups were found to correlate with decreases in IL-6. (Mitigating Cellular Inflammation in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi Chih. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2011 Sep 19. [Epub ahead of print]).

Combining a weekly tai chi exercise class with standard depression treatment leads to greater improvement in depression symptoms for elderly adults. One hundred and twelve adults aged 60 or older with major depression were treated with the antidepressant escitalopram (Cipralex), for approximately four weeks. From among these participants, 73 who showed only partial improvement continued to receive daily medication and were also randomly assigned to ten weeks of either a tai chi class or a health education class for two hours per week. The researchers found that among those who participated in tai chi, 94% achieved depression scores of less than 10 on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (a score of more than 10 indicates a diagnosis of depression), with 65% achieving remission (a score of six or less). By comparison, among participants who received health education, 77% achieved scores of 10 or less, with 51% achieving remission. Greater improvements in quality of life, memory and cognition, and overall energy were also seen in the tai chi group. (Complementary Use of Tai Chi Chih Augments Escitalopram Treatment of Geriatric Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2011 Mar 6. [Epub ahead of print]

A single acupuncture treatment at Liangqiu ST-34 has been shown to significantly improve walking gait in geriatric patients. Sixty German patients receiving rehabilitation treatment on a geriatric ward were randomised to receive a one-time needle stimulation at Liangqiu ST-34 or a technically identical needle stimulation at a non-acupoint. Gait performance was objectively measured on an electronic walkway before and after needling. All gait parameters showed statistically significant improvement after verum acupuncture compared with control treatment. (Stimulation of acupoint ST-34 acutely improves gait performance in geriatric patients during rehabilitation: A randomized controlled trial. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2011 Jan;92(1):7-14).

Positive psychological changes that occur during meditation training are associated with increased activity of telomerase, a crucial enzyme responsible for cellular health, according to an important study from the USA. Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres, the protective caps of DNA at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres tend to shorten with each cell division and when their length drops below a critical level, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies. Previous studies have suggested that telomerase activity may link psychological stress and physical health, as it is observed to decrease with chronic psychological distress. This new study is a product of the Shamatha Project, one of the first long-term, detailed, matched control-group studies of the effects of intensive meditation training on mind and body. Sixty volunteers attending a three-month meditation retreat were randomised into two groups. Half of the subjects began the retreat, while the remaining half served as the control group. During the retreat, attendees practiced concentration meditation for around six hours a day. Telomerase activity was found to be significantly greater in retreat participants than in controls at the end of the retreat and these increases correlated directly with positive changes in psychological measures including perceived control, neuroticism, mindfulness and purpose in life. (Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomeraseactivity, and psychological. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010 Oct 29. [Epub ahead of print]).

A systematic review of seven randomised controlled trials has concluded that tai chi has the potential to reduce falls or risk of falls among the elderly, provided that they are relatively young and non-frail. (A systematic review of the effectiveness of Tai Chi on fall reduction among the elderly. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2008 Apr 15. [Epub ahead of print]).

Practising tai chi chih (TCC), a Westernized version of tai chi, has been shown to promote sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep complaints. In the US study, 112 healthy adults, age range 59 to 86, were randomly assigned to one of two groups for a 25-week period: one group practised 20 simple TCC moves, the other participated in health education classes that included advice on stress management, diet and sleep habits. Those in the TCC group showed improved sleep quality and a reduction of clinical impairments, such as drowsiness during the day and inability to concentrate, compared with those in the education group. (Improving sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep complaints: A randomized controlled trial of Tai Chi Chih. Sleep. 2008 Jul 1;31(7):1001-8).

The mechanisms by which tai chi can improve balance were investigated in a randomised controlled trial of 49 healthy older adults. The investigators found that that a widening of stance and improved use of vestibular input (sensory information from the inner ear which informs us how the body is moving in relationship to space and gravity) are two mechanisms by which tai chi may improve balance. (Effect of combined Taiji and Qigong training on balance mechanisms: a randomized controlled trial of older adults. Med Sci Monit. 2007 Aug;13(8):CR339-48).