Maintaining Balance as We Age
Balance is the ability to distribute weight in a way that will let us hold a steady position. Balance begins with a nonstop stream of information gathered by several systems in the body. The visual system (your eyes) helps you to orient yourself in space. The musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints, tendons) contains special sensors that provide you with awareness of your body and movements in space (proprioception or kinesthesia). The vestibular system (inner ear) provides information about head position, spatial orientation, and motion. All three of theses systems are continually sending their findings to the brain. This flood of data gets processed and the result is the ability to stand, move, perform tasks and remain balanced. Strength and flexibility are also other important components of balance. They are required to keep the body upright and under control. Good balance relies on the muscles of the feet, legs, buttocks, abdominals, and torso.
As we age, we lose the function to balance through loss of sensory elements, decreased ability to integrate information and issue motor commands, and loss of musculoskeletal function. What can you do to fight this loss? Resistance training and weightlifting will build strength and stamina. Yoga, tai chi, and Pilates will help with flexibility. Simple activities, such as standing on one foot while brushing your teeth or cooking, always rising from a chair without using your arms, practicing walking backwards or heel-to-toe in a straight line all directly target balance. Researchers have found that balance begins to decline in midlife, starting at about age 50. In one recent study, adults in their 30s and 40s could stand on one foot for a minute or more. At age 50, the time decreased to 45 seconds. At 70, study participants managed 28 seconds. By age 80 and older, they lasted less than 12 seconds standing on one foot.
Because the aging process can affect vision, strength and balance, adults 65 and older are at elevated risk for falls. However, falls are not a natural part of aging and can be prevented.
Balance and Fall Risk Assessment
Physical Therapists can examine you and assess your balance and risk of falling. Guidelines published by the American Geriatrics Society and British Geriatrics Society (AGS/BGS) recommend screening adults 65 and older for fall risk every year. A balance and fall screen may include questions about your history of falling in the past year, and if there was a need for medical attention. Even if you have not fallen, a comprehensive evaluation and balance training are key in preventing potential slips and trips, helping you live without the fear of an accidental fall. Physical therapists will use balance re-training exercises, gait training, safety training, and muscle strengthening to help those who are struggling with balance issues due to injury or aging.
Request an appointment to have one of our Doctors of Physical Therapy assess your balance and help prevent falls.
Written by: Dr. Carrie Ward, PT, DPT