How Our Balance Changes As We Age
Three main body systems govern our sense of balance. The vestibular system of our inner ear, our visual system (the eyes and brain), and the proprioceptive system of muscles all work together to tell our brain where we are in time and space. Their coordination allows us to perform everyday tasks such as walking, or more complicated activities such as yoga or hitting the ball in tennis.
Why do seniors fall?
As we age, the three body systems that govern our balance decline. Our vision is not as sharp, and our brain less able to interpret information from our proprioceptors. Most often, the reason for a loss of balance lies in the inner ear. With age, sensory hair cells decrease, and blood flow may be limited to the inner ear. Diseases such as Meniere’s disease, an upper respiratory infection, or the flu, can also have an adverse effect on our vestibular function, causing a person to feel dizzy, or have trouble walking or standing on a soft or uneven surface. The most common vestibular disorder (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, or BPPV) causes a sense of true spinning vertigo triggered by a change of head or body position, such as when we get in and out of bed.
The real problem with losing our sense of balance, is of course, the increased risk of a fall. Each year, three million older Americans are treated for fall injuries. One in five falls causes a serious injury, such as a head injury or broken bones. Falling once also doubles your chances of falling again.
What you can do to reduce your risk of a fall
Less than half of the seniors who fall each year tell their doctor what’s happened. Don’t be part of this statistic. Your doctor or primary healthcare provider should be your ally. It’s important to be open with them if you’ve fallen, are worried about falling, or have been feeling unsteady. Have them evaluate your risk and learn the specific things you can do if you’re at risk.
Review your medicines and supplements
Have your provider check your prescriptions and any over-the-counter medicine you’re taking. Some medicines, or combinations of medicines, cause side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. Even if you’ve been taking it for some time, the way a familiar medication works in your body can change.
A surprising reason why seniors fall is a lack of Vitamin D. Vitamin D improves your bone, muscle and nerve health, and can reduce the risk of a fall by 20%. While you may believe you’re getting sufficient Vitamin D from the sun or your diet, some people have problems absorbing enough of this necessary vitamin, so supplementation is usually needed.
Get your eyes and feet checked
Poor vision is among the reasons why seniors fall. Get your vision checked at least once a year and update your contact lens or eyeglasses as needed. If you wear bifocals or progressive lenses, they can make things seem closer or further away than they are. Consider getting a distance prescription only for outdoor activities, even if you’re only walking. It’s also important to get your feet checked to find out if you’re wearing the proper footwear or need to see a foot specialist. Wear well-fitting shoes with good support and soles with traction, both inside and outside the house.
Make your home safer
Why do seniors fall at home? Common reasons are tripping or slipping on something on the floor. Clear the stairways and walkways in your home. Remove any clutter on the floor, or tripping hazards like a trailing lamp or computer cord or bulky furniture. Make sure any rugs on the floor are non-slip and the edges are flat. Seniors often lose their balance getting on or off a rolling chair, so if you own such a chair, change it for a stationary one with sturdy arms.
Slipping on a wet surface is another reason why seniors fall, so add grab bars to your shower and by your toilet, and if you use mats in the shower or by your sink, choose non-slip ones. Add handrails to both sides of your staircase, and ensure that stairways are well lit, especially at the top. As you get older, your home should be well lit with no dark areas. Change out dim or flickering light bulbs with a higher wattage and opt for “daylight” bulbs in areas (such as kitchens) where you need to see well.
Improve your strength and balance
Exercises that improve your balance and strength will reduce your chances of a fall. To maintain bone density and overall strength, some form of supervised strength training is a good idea. Including exercises for your midline is essential, as a strong core helps with balance and mobility. Work on maintaining a full range of motion for functional movements such squatting, reaching and turning. Many seniors benefit from slower exercise such as Tai Chi or yoga, which challenge concentration, flexibility, stamina and balance, all at the same time.
Dizziness and imbalance are common as we age and have a substantial impact on our quality of life. It’s estimated that dizziness interferes with the everyday activities of 30% of seniors age 70+. It’s crucial to understand what’s causing the symptoms and address the causes as swiftly as possible.
At Cypress Village, our rehabilitation team offers a range of services to help identify your risk factors and treat the causes for dizziness and loss of balance. Our treatment plans are open to residents and nonresidents, and include vestibular and balance therapy, as well as a comprehensive fall prevention program. Contact us to schedule a personal assessment.