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Shannon Koehle: Tai Chi -- A Cure for Insomnia in Older Adults?

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A health education sleep study released in last months Sleep Journal says tai chi chih can help older adults receive a better night’s rest.

Nearly two-thirds of the study participants experienced a “significant improvement in sleep quality” from the lullaby-like, rhythmic movements of tai chi.

According to the Tai Chi Chih organization, it is not martial arts, but a group of 19 movements and one pose “focused on the development of an intrinsic energy called chi.”

“As people age there is a decreased ability to sleep rather than a decreased need for sleep,” says Geriatric Medicine professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Dr. Cathy Alessi.

As she says, they tend to sleep lighter, receive less deep sleep, sleep less efficiently, take longer to fall asleep, and wake up more often throughout the night.

However, chief author of the sleep study Dr. Michael R. Irwin says the benefits of tai chi were similar to those with drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Similarly, Dr. Alessi says, although she is unfamiliar with tai chi, “It’s not surprising that non pharmaceutical interventions work as well as pharmaceutical intervention.”

Dr. Irwin also says, while aerobic exercise can also assist older adults to sleep better, this type of workout is too strenuous for many.

Unlike traditional exercises, the Tai Chi Chih organization says, “[This] does not require a particular level of physical fitness or coordination.” Similarly, for those with limitations, tai chi can be altered for those who must remain seated, they say.

With studies indicating more than half of older adults experience sleeping problems a few times a week, non traditional exercise may be the answer.

As Dr. Irwin said in a Reuters Health article, study members participating on their own were logging an average 161 minutes per week. “That’s close to 20 to 30 minutes a day on average, which is pretty remarkable.”

However, for those who are unable to achieve results with tai chi, Dr. Alessi says, over-the-counter antihistamines and benzodiazepine and non-benzodiazepine are a good prescription and nonprescription options.

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