Balance and Aging
by Ron B. Minson, MD
Let’s take a new perspective on having ‘balance’ in our lives.
Yes, it is important to have balance in our lives. On an individual level, it generally means balancing time between work and play and time with family and friends. And remember to include fun and laughter, relaxation and exercise to balance a hectic life and to support a health immune system. Balance also means that work doesn’t tip the scales so heavily we have no time to develop deep, meaningful relationships, no time for preparing healthy meals or exercise, or time to get a good night’s sleep.
Yet, ‘balance in aging’ also means something more. We know the risks associated for older persons if they should fall. Approximately one in three people over the age of 65 will have a fall each year. And 10 – 15% of those will be serious. For older people, a fall may be the beginning of a cascade of problems that compound one upon the other. We all want to avoid this.
What I recently discovered is that balance problems are one of the most common reasons those over the age of 65 see a doctor. And, for good reason. Not only can it take a serious amount of detective work to determine the actual cause, in some cases, a balance issue is a symptom of an underlying medical condition.
Approximately one in three people over the age of 65 will have a fall each year. And 10-15% of those will be serious.
Here are some of the more common causes of a balance issue.
- a problem in the vestibular portion of the inner ear that governs balance and coordination
- tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
- colds, congestion, allergies, infections
- getting up quickly from a sitting or lying position
- injury to the head
- low blood pressure
For good balance, it is important to have good vision, good muscle strength, flexible joints, good proprioceptive input (for body awareness), and good reaction time. As you see, there are several areas of sensory input that inform the brain for good balance. The not so good news? Each of these sensory inputs tends to decrease with age. In fact, as one ages dysfunction of the inner ear mechanism also becomes a risk factor. This can seem discouraging, but there is good news.
Many people are well into their 70s, 80s and even 90s with great balance skills, and therapists tend to think of balance and proprioception in terms of children with sensory processing disorders. They know that with good therapy, most develop normal or near-normal balance. If it is true for children, can it be true for adults?
The answer is, “Yes!” I’ve seen it firsthand. When we had our clinic, clients in their 70s and 80s would come in for help with their hearing, as many had suffered hearing loss. “Our system does not restore hearing,” we would tell them; “however, we can most likely improve your balance, muscle tone and energy.” As one sharp 82-year-old woman put it, “I get up in the morning and go, go, go just like the Ever Ready battery. Also I don’t trip over the carpet and no more need for afternoon naps.”
Shortly after starting their program of sound and movement therapy, we’d hear reports of being more stable moving around the kitchen during meal preparation, more confidence going up and down stairs. In fact, we also had reports of improvements in a common contributor to falls, faulty depth perception. And depth perception is important for driving, putting things in a hot oven and any time you have to judge how far away an object is.
The great news is that anyone can improve balance throughout the lifespan. Prevention and rehabilitation both play significant roles. First step: have a healthcare professional assess your balance. Exercise to strengthen the muscles that have changed with age. Include flexibility as part of your routine – stretching, yoga. Then, to accelerate your improvement, combine the iLs Focus System with a movement or exercise plan at home.