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How to stay steady on your feet

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December 22nd, 2014
yoga class
yoga class

Despite increased awareness about the importance of good balance, falls remain the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults. The problem is getting worse: About 24,000 people died in 2012 after falling, and over 2.4 million were seen in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries—a 50% increase over the past ten years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The ability to balance involves controlling and maintaining your body’s position, whether you are moving or remaining still. An intact sense of balance requires a number of interrelated factors, including good vision and hearing, strong muscles, awareness of your surroundings, and an intact sense of proprioception (sensory information that detects the body’s position, motion, and equilibrium). 

All of these factors are affected by the aging process. “Your brain cannot adapt as quickly to changes in position,” says Robert Stewart, M.D., medical director at Wind Crest, an Erickson Living community in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “Even if you trip and know you are about to go down, your feet can’t catch up with your falling body.” 

Health problems affecting balance

For many seniors, the gradual onset of aging changes makes it difficult to detect when their sense of balance is getting worse. Others might develop balance disorders such as benign positional vertigo or Meniere’s disease, both of which involve the inner ear. “But far more common are conditions that affect your bones, muscles, and nerves, such as arthritis and neuropathies, which can decrease your flexibility and muscle strength,” Stewart says.

Many prescription medications and some over-the-counter drugs can interfere with balance. “A large percentage of seniors take medicine for high blood pressure, any of which might cause periods of unsteadiness and dizziness,” Stewart says. “People need to move slowly and cautiously when sitting up or standing.”

Strategies for better balance

About half of all falls happen at home, according to the CDC. Removing clutter, improving lighting, and securing loose rugs can make your home safer. Consider installing handrails in the bathroom to further reduce your risk.

Improving your balance or preventing problems in the first place takes a little more effort than going for a daily walk. “Combining structured training that focuses on strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance is especially important,” says Mary Wagner, corporate director of rehabilitation services for Erickson Living. “Exercising regularly can do wonders for your sense of balance.”

“Physical therapists can help you learn specific activities or recommend assistive devices,” Stewart adds.  “No one likes to use a cane, walker, or wheelchair, but you may not have to always use it, and if it can save you from a catastrophic fall, it’s worth considering.” 

Because falls are such a major public health issue, quite a lot of research has been focused on ways to improve balance. Study results suggest that participating in tai chi or specialized balance classes have helped many people measurably reduce their risk of falling. 

“Patients have told me they are surprised at how many different exercises they learn in balance classes,” Stewart says. “It’s worthwhile to learn the ones that are most enjoyable for you.” 

It seems that seniors do not take balance problems as seriously as they should. Surveys show that nearly half of seniors who have had a fall fail to report it to their doctor. “If you’ve had a fall, you might need a vision checkup, a hearing screen, or a podiatry visit,” Stewart says. “When seeing their doctors for their usual health problems, people should always include balance as a topic of discussion.”

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