Former dentist Max Schaeffer thought he was aging in good health, until one night changed everything.
“Betty had gone to bed to read and I was adjusting the TV, and suddenly everything blacked out,” Schaeffer recalls.
For seconds, half of his field of vision was black. When it happened two more times over the next couple of weeks, he went to his doctor.
“He said, ‘You’ve had a TIA; that’s a transient ischemic attack, and that means you’re probably going to have a stroke.’”
Schaeffer was put on blood-thinning medications, which are often prescribed to reduce stroke risk. But over the weeks that followed, he noticed that his ability to maintain his balance just wasn’t the same.
That’s when he found out about an experiment under way at the University of Arizona that had the potential to help him.
Dr. Ruth Taylor-Piliae, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona College of Nursing, was recruiting stroke and TIA survivors to study whether tai chi could help restore some of their lost balance and function.
Taylor-Piliae, a longtime practitioner of tai chi, was asked to write about how this ancient Chinese martial art may benefit stroke survivors — and discovered very little research had been done on the topic.
“I thought wow, this is a big gap in the research and we need to do something,” she says.
It also seemed like a promising gap: Past studies of tai chi in healthy older adults had shown that it improves balance, blood pressure and mood — three major trouble areas for stroke survivors.
So Taylor-Piliae designed a new study that would measure improvements directly in stroke survivors.
She recruited 145 survivors who were split into three groups. One-third learned tai chi in small classes of five or six participants who met three times a week for 12 weeks.
Another third enrolled in SilverSneakers, a national fitness program for older adults. And the last third received what was termed “usual care,” which consisted of giving the participants a list of age-appropriate fitness classes and calling them weekly to check on them.
As part of the tai chi group, Schaeffer says, he struggled at first.
“At first, I noticed that if I had to turn quickly to go in a different direction, I had to watch it or I would tip,” he recalls. “But with time, my brain learned to make the turns more and more easily.”
Schaeffer’s initial difficulty isn’t surprising, says Dr. Bruce Coull, a UA stroke neurologist who worked with Taylor-Piliae on the study.
When a stroke injures the brain, he says, it most often causes paralysis, affected speech and vision, and an impaired sense of balance. That last symptom can easily lead to falls.
“We’re trying to prevent falling in patients with strokes because that’s one of the things that leads to broken hips and rehospitalizations,” Coull says. “Falling in the elderly is a big, big problem in health care today. And, as you might guess, people who’ve had strokes are at increased risk for having that happen.”
The researchers followed the stroke survivors for months after the study to see how they did. They measured how often the survivors fell—and found impressive results.
“The most interesting finding we had was that the people in the tai chi class had one-third the falls of the other groups ... which is a huge difference in the number of falls,” says Taylor-Piliae.
For Schaeffer, learning tai chi has been life changing. It has improved his balance and mobility, controlled his high blood pressure, and given him a new sense of hope.
“It’s no fun to get old and think every year it’s going to get worse and worse, and I don’t think that necessarily has to happen,” he says. “You don’t have to just let yourself fail, which is what most people do.”
Taylor-Piliae’s work isn’t done. Encouraged by results like Schaeffer’s, she plans to pursue more studies of tai chi and stroke rehabilitation. But her stroke survivors aren’t done with their work either.
“Several of my stroke survivors have continued doing tai chi, and they’re either doing it on their own or they’ve joined an existing class in the community,” she says. “And I think that’s really the goal, helping people reintegrate back into the mainstream society, to feel like they’re not so different from other people.”
In his East Side living room, Schaeffer still makes time every night for a tai chi session. He has no plans to give up his tai chi practice, or the hard-won wellness it has brought him.