From the CDC: Falling is the leading cause of injury death for those 65 and older. One out of three adults over 65 fall every year. Less than half talk to their doctor about it. (Some studies use 45 and older)
Head injuries, fractures, lacerations and fear, all resulting from falls, can lead to a loss of independence and mobility restriction. Some people become so afraid about falling that they severely restrict their activities. They become more dependent on others and lose some quality of life.
What keeps us vertical?
There are three systems that provide the input that keeps us balanced. Vision is more than being able to read a chart in your doctor’s office. Depth perception and tracking objects are also important skills. It is important to have vision tested for all of these, especially if there have been balance changes. Vestibular (inner ear) problems can become more frequent as we age. There are tests and treatments for inner ear issues. Proprioception involves the information your brain gets from the muscles and joints about what position they are in. This area is the easiest to work on independently before and after seeking advice from your primary care doctor, ENT and/or physical therapist. Processing the information in the brain and sending signals back out to the body is the last step.
So what can we do?
There are many things that we can do to improve and maintain good balance. If you are having significant balance problems already, I highly recommend consulting a medical professional. There are several conditions that can alter balance and treatment can be very effective, especially when the source of the problem is known.
Staying active and strong is one of the best tools for remaining balanced. An exercise as simple as sitting in a sturdy chair, standing up without using your arms (if possible) and sitting back down without using your arms, is a good way to keep your legs strong. Staying flexible can be important. If your calf muscles are too tight, the foot does not dorsiflex or lift properly as the leg swings forward while walking. It is easier to catch your toe on the ground and trip. There are some basic stretches, including a calf stretch at the bottom of the page at this site.
Progressive balance exercises can be extremely helpful. Finding a corner in the house to do them in can make it much safer because it is easy to reach up and use the 2 walls to steady yourself. Start in a half-tandem or a tandem stance (see picture), with one foot in front of the other. At first, just try to stand there for 30 seconds. If that is not too hard, then try to move your head slowly from side to side (like looking both ways before crossing the street). Then you can try looking up and down. Do NOT strain your neck, keep it comfortable. The idea is to challenge your balance while using all 3 systems; vision and vestibular by moving your head, and proprioceptive with the tandem stance. For even more of a challenge, try doing it with your eyes closed or standing on one foot. My balance is pretty good until I close my eyes. It is amazing how visually dependent most of us are for our balance. (photo found here)
Give it a try, and stay safe my friends.
Even the young could use balance exercises: