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That's why a recent study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) is so encouraging. As published in the May 3, 1995 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), Tai Chi was the only exercise/activity to show a statistically significant decrease in the number of falls among the elderly study participants. The Tai Chi practitioners recorded a 25% decrease in injuries from falls. Some of the other exercise modules showed increased falls, merely because the patients were moving more. In resistance or flexibility training there's the tendency to go too far too fast. That's where people get hurt. The nature of Tai Chi is helping people understand the value of moderation, which has always made it the safest of exercise.
While preventing falls may not be high on your list of reasons for studying Tai Chi, it's certainly an important goal for the senior population. Over 30% of people aged 65 or more experience at least one fall per year and 15% of those falls result in serious injuries. Falls are the sixth largest cause of death among seniors and contribute to a general health decline even when they're not the direct cause of death. Falls are expensive. The last figures are from 1984 -- before the aging trend got into full swing, and before the recent inflation of medical costs. Even back in 1984, falls in senior citizens cost $3.7 billion per year.
Unlike anecdotal evidence that the skeptical can shrug off as Eastern mysticism, this study involved 8 medical facilities, including some of the most esteemed names in Western medical science: Harvard, Yale, Centers for Disease Control, Washington University School of Medicine and Emory University.
The slow pace so emphasized in Tai Chi is alive and well in Western medical research. It's been 12 years from inception in 1984 to publication of this research into preventing falls. That's not a bad thing, per se. In fact, it highlights how good research is careful research that isn't hurried. By 1989, the NIA came together with the National Center for Nursing Research and the Centers for Disease Control to issue a Request for Applications. Of 42 proposals, 8 were chosen and funded as of April 1990. The studies took place over the next three years, concluding in March 1993. Since then it's been a matter of followup -- tracking the incidence of falls, data analysis and peer review. Addressing the ongoing value of Tai Chi training, the JAMA article notes, "It is encouraging that the reduction in risk persists... for a median time of 1.5 years."
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