Tai Chi for Depression

There is so much good that comes with age — wisdom, grandchildren to spoil and retirement.  As time goes by and we get older we experience a lot of changes, both of the good and bad variety. Sometimes the “bad” is not just a passing feeling or a case of the “blues.” Over 2 million people over the age of 65 suffer from depression and “the suicide rate among white men over 85 is the highest in the country — six times the national rate.” However, the good news is that there is help available and perhaps in ways you’ve never considered. Specifically, a recent University of California at Los Angeles study showed that Tai Chi may help to relieve depression in older adults.

Older adults often experience life changes that can lead to depression. First, there are health-related problems. As we get older, our health tends to decline. Chronic illnesses which lead to reduced physical and mental ability may lead to depression. Additionally, depression may be a side effect of medications prescribed to treat illnesses.

Apart from a decline in health, death becomes a part of our lives. The longer we live, the more people around us pass away, whether family members, friends or acquaintances. With the loss that death brings comes loneliness and isolation. Also, as we age the children grow up, move out and establish their own households. We also find that our and peers and family members have died or relocated. Additionally, reduced mobility due to illness may further limit our ability to connect with other people or get involved in activities outside of the home.

Also, we sometimes feel a loss of purpose. We all look forward to the day when we don’t have to work or chase after children anymore, but once that day is here, some of us feel lost, useless and confused. If the sadness is more than a passing mood, it may be depression.

Depression is often treated with medication and counseling.  However, depression is harder to treat in older adults. They often don’t respond to prescription drugs and or suffer from unpleasant and sometimes intolerable side effects. If a patient is on medication for depression and his or her symptoms are not controlled, the usual course of treatment is to add another antidepressant. However, older adults are usually taking 10 or 15 medications for a myriad of illnesses and the last thing they want is even more medication. Therefore, it is important to consider other options to treat depression in the elderly.

In a study, the University of California at Los Angeles observed older adults who had been diagnosed with major depression. First, they were treated with Lexapro (Escitalopram) and showed some improvement, but tests still showed high levels of depression. The patients were then randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group participated in Tai Chi and the other group attended a health class which included 10 minutes of stretching exercises. Both groups participated for 10 weeks for two hours a week.

Therefore, the results show that Tai Chi may relieve depression in older adults. Additionally, Tai Chi may address some of the issues that lead to depression. For example, Tai Chi has been shown to improve mental and physical health. Particularly, Tai Chi helps with strength and balance which reduces falls and the resultant injuries. Consequently, adults who are mentally sharp and have the strength to remain mobile and independent are less likely to suffer from loneliness and isolation because they can drive and continue to participate in social activities outside the home.

Depression in older adults not only affects their quality of life because they cannot enjoy everyday activities and special events, but it “…can lead to serious consequences, including greater morbidity, disability, mortality and increased cost of care.” Tai Chi may be an important tool to combat depression in older adults because it reduces factors that lead to depression and also relieve depression.


Helen Lavretsky, Lily L. Alstein, Richard E. Olmstead, Linda M. Ercoli, Marquertie Riparetti-Brown, Natalie St. Cyr, Michael R. Irwin. Complementary Use of Tai Chi Chih Augments Escitalopram Treatment of Geriatric Depression. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2011; : 1 DOI: 10.1097/JGP.0b013e31820ee9ef

Read the study here.

Depression in Older Adults and the Elderly.

Tai Chi Beats Back Depression in the Elderly, Study Shows.


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