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UMass Boston professors looking at Tai Chi impact on reducing falls in older adults to conduct pilot studies

The National Institute on Aging has awarded investigators in UMass Boston’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences a one-year $523,133 grant to conduct pilot studies on the impact of a Tai Chi program compared to a light physical exercise program on older adults. The two principal investigators of this project are Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director of Exercise and Health Sciences Tongjian You and Professor of Nursing Suzanne Leveille. Associate Professor of Nursing Ling Shi is a co-investigator on this project.

The professors say the pilot studies will set up a foundation for a future full-size trial.

Leveille, an epidemiologist with a background in gerontological nursing, has been studying chronic pain and falls in older adults for many years, and is a nationally and internationally known expert in the field. You is a nationally recognized exercise scientist who specializes in interventions for older people. The two investigators teamed up seven years ago, aiming to conduct a mind-body exercise trial that would be one of the first to specifically look at older adults experiencing musculoskeletal pain in more than one area and the impact on falls and function.

“We think that especially for older people with pain, having mind-body exercise would be an important component for preventing falls, more so than gentle physical exercise,” Leveille said. 

There are a few components to this pilot work.

“One is to look at the local community and talk to elders in the local community about what they think about mind-body exercise and how there might be barriers or incentives that would encourage them or detract them from participating in exercise—to get a better idea about what we would need to do to make this a successful project,” Leveille said.

In addition to a focus group study, a small group of seniors will be invited to participate in a four-week demonstration pilot study. The investigators will use their feedback to develop strategies to have a successful trial.

“People are often reluctant to participate in studies, and older adults who have pain are often afraid of falling and may hesitate in particular to participate in an exercise trial, so we would like to have these demonstrations and also have focus groups and other types of interviews to collect information from people and find out what they would expect or what they would be concerned about in participating in a larger Tai Chi trial,” Leveille said.

Participants in a previous, 54-person pilot trial were from Newton and Quincy. You says for this one, they would like to pull in people from the Boston area, which would be closer to the UMass Boston campus for initial and post-trial assessments. (Study participants would take part in Tai Chi classes near where they live, whether that be a senior center, a church, or other location.) You said another benefit to recruiting in Boston is that it should draw a more diverse group.

“Of the 54 participants in the previous pilot trial, 96 percent were white, so that’s why for the current work, a main goal is to recruit as many minority seniors as possible,” You said.

You says UMass Boston students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels will be able to participate throughout the research process. They are currently recruiting research assistants.