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Aiming to reduce falls by elderly, health officials promoting Tai Chi

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Patricia Burns said she began Tai Chi after middle age brought lower back issues. The gentle movements helped, and she fell in love with the martial art.

“I was looking for something to do that was low-impact. This fit the bill, and I started doing it,” she said.

Today she’s a Tai Chi instructor at the Taoist Tai Chi Society’s Scottsdale Center.

Wayne Tormala, chief of the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Bureau of Tobacco and Chronic Diseases, said the state needs more Tai Chi instructors to work with the state’s aging population. Training and certifying more of them is among the goals in the department’s updated Healthy Aging Plan.

The reason: Doing Tai Chi helps prevent fall injuries among the elderly.

“We know that falls is among the leading cause of death among people over 65 in Arizona and throughout the U.S.,” he said.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, participation in Tai Chi classes once a week prevented falls in people aged 60 years and older by improving balance.

Tormala said it also improves strength and confidence.

“One of the major concerns in addition to falling is the fear of falling,” he said. “And once you become afraid to fall you become isolated, which brings its own host of problems.”

Burns, the instructor, said Tai Chi helps strengthen the mind by making people focus on the moves and staying in sync with one another.

“It’s meditative and it quiets the mind,” she said.

Norma Tempel, one of Burns’ students, said she takes classes at the Scottsdale Taoist Tai Chi Center because of the benefits it has for aging. She said it’s also way to engage in the community.

“I go to these classes because it’s a great way to meet and connect with people,” she said.

According to a study published in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, community engagement can protect cognitive functioning in the aging community.

But Tormala said there are only a handful of Tai Chi instructors to bring these benefits to Arizona’s large aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 15 percent of Arizona’s population was over the age of 65 in 2013.

“One of our ambitions here is to really increase the certified trainers throughout the state in all the urban and rural areas and have them be able to train other people,” he said.

Tormala said the department is launching a pilot program in the western part of Arizona in late spring to fix any bugs.

“If we do some training and get people certified, and we learn as we go, then the next step would be to go statewide,” he said.