Among the aging population in the U.S., one important key to maintaining good health and longevity is preventing falls. Nationwide, falls are the leading cause of injury and death among seniors. Even older adults in good health can experience a decrease in balance compared to when they were younger. In fact, more than a third of people who are 65 and older fall every year, and the risk increases with age.
In the human body, your balance mechanism takes place mostly in the inner ear. This area is called the vestibular system, and it is made up of semi-circular canals filled with fluid. These semi-circular canals are dense in nerves, are lined with tiny hairs, and contain calcium crystals, all of which work together to provide an automatic sense of the position of your head, the movement of your body, and the effect of gravity.
The messages your brain receives from the vestibular system, combined with what it receives from your vision and your muscles, give the brain a full understanding of the position of your body in its environment. When these systems aren’t working together properly, it can cause you to feel dizzy or lightheaded.
The decline of balance as we age
There are many reasons that our balance declines as we get older. For example, research shows that the number of nerve cells in the vestibular system starts to drop at about the age of 55, and the decline gets worse the older we get. Also, older adults are more likely to take medications that help them cope with chronic conditions, but can interfere with balance as a side effect. That’s why it’s important to understand the potential side effects of the medications you take.
Plus, when you’re having balance issues, it can make the effects of other conditions worse, such as arthritis or diabetic neuropathy, as well as heart or blood circulation issues and long-term diseases of the nervous system, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the most common balance issues is vertigo, or the feeling that everything around you is spinning. Typically, this comes from a problem in the inner ear. Dizziness can also be caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure when you stand or sit up too quickly. This occurs because gravity causes the blood to go to your lower extremities, briefly leaving less of it in your heart and brain. It can last from just a few seconds to several minutes, and may be accompanied by nausea and pale or clammy skin.
Exercises that can help your balance
Like most functions in your body, exercise can make your balance stronger and more effective. It’s a good idea to start slowly and make sure you have a sturdy object like a chair nearby in case you start to feel wobbly. Here are a few exercises you can try. And as always, be sure to keep your physician informed about your exercise program.
- Foot taps. Stand in front of the bottom step of a staircase or a low, sturdy piece of furniture with your feet about hip-width apart. In the beginning, hold on to the wall or stair rail for balance, but as you get stronger try it without holding on to anything. Then, slowly raise one foot to tap the step in front of you before returning it slowly to the floor. Do this for 15 to 20 taps on the same foot, then switch to the opposite foot. This video will demonstrate.
- Head rotations. Again, stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold on to the wall or a sturdy piece of furniture if you need to. Slowly move your head from side to side, then up and down, while keeping your body as still as possible. Do this for about 30 seconds, then repeat. If you get dizzy, move your head more slowly. If that doesn’t help the dizziness, stop. Here’s a video demonstration.
- Sit-To-Stands. Stand with a sturdy chair behind you and your feet about hip-width apart. Slowly sit back and lower your hips onto the chair gently. After a pause, stand up, pushing through your heels and without swinging your torso or using your hands, except for balance. Repeat this motion 10 times.
Maintaining your balance is very important as you age because shaky balance can cause you to be fearful of falling and hurting yourself. That may lead you to miss out on a lot of activities, such as walking, shopping, gardening, or attending social events. In other words, protecting your balance is a great way to protect your enjoyment of life.