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Tai Chi program helps seniors find balance

Nov 24 2014

One in three adults aged 65 and older fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of 2012, the CDC estimated that these falls cost the U.S. health care system approximately $30 billion in direct medical costs.

One proven way to improve balance and reduce falls is to practice the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi. In fact, the American Journal of Geriatrics and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) have identified Tai Chi as an effective exercise methodology to improve balance. Research has also found that Tai Chi can help reduce falls upwards of 55 percent in the Medicare population.

Aetna recently conducted a pilot program that encouraged Medicare members in Maine to practice Tai Chi. Developed with a local Tai Chi expert and the Agencies on Aging serving the eastern, central and southern sections of Maine, the program had more than 140 Aetna members practicing Tai Chi two times a week for six months. The program included in-person classroom sessions, as well as instruction that was available online and on DVD.

In the program’s first year, participants reported about 20 percent fewer falls and a 20 percent reduction in anxiety about falls, when compared with a control group. People who took the class twice a week reported the most improvement and were most satisfied. Now that the classes have ended, Aetna will measure whether the benefits of tai chi continue.

The classroom sessions were extremely popular. According to participant Beverly Pratt, the sessions offered both physical and social benefits. “The program helped me to learn how to put more weight on my heels when I walk, which really helped my balance,” Pratt said. “I would definitely participate again, since it was nice to be physically active and socialize with other people at the same time.”

Tai Chi - Bangor Bev Pratt small

In addition to the Aetna members who were in the classes, more than 140 non-Aetna members were invited to participate given the heavy interest in the program. Participants reported significant improvements in their health:

  • A participant with an advanced illness diagnosis reported that practicing Tai Chi helped to decrease stress, maintain strength, and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • A man who was initially chair bound started practicing Tai Chi from a sitting position. By the end of the program he was able to participate standing, with much improved balance and strength.

“You could see how the Tai Chi exercises were helping people improve their balance and make it easier for daily movements like getting out of a chair,” said Linda Horton, one of the instructors for the program.

Based on this success and positive response from participants, the Agency on Aging is continuing the program beyond the pilot study with Aetna. Aetna is also evaluating the results to identify other potential locations for this type of program. The program was developed through the Aetna Innovation Labs.

About Aetna Innovation Labs

Aetna Innovation Labs is a source for unique ideas and programs that provide market-leading capabilities to improve health care quality and reduce costs for our customers and members. Through this organization, Aetna can:

  • Test specific initiatives such as those related to disease prediction and intervention;
  • Rapidly determine success rates and impact across populations of members; and
  • Quickly expand programs that show promise.

The information in this story is based on a pilot program. It is not currently available to all Aetna members. However, it may be expanded to more individuals in the future.