By: Cassie Drumm, Jefferson Health New Jersey
Mobility is one of the keys to healthy aging. And recently, researchers found that the ability to balance can indicate longevity for older adults. Their report stated that people who fail a balance test of standing on one foot for 10 seconds are twice as likely to die within the next 10 years.
Before you worry, let’s see what this means for the average person. Is there truth to this balance test? What should you do if you can’t balance on one foot for 10 seconds? We spoke to geriatrician Dr. Lauren Hersh to find out more.
Balance and a longer life
As we age, we naturally experience a decline in function, including balance. But decreased balance can represent a “tipping point” in health, acting as a warning sign. “At age 65, about 15% of people report trouble with balance,” says Dr. Hersh. “But that number reaches almost half by age 85.”
Problems with balance usually aren’t the cause of death for older adults, but they represent the tip of the iceberg that lets physicians know there may be underlying conditions or risks to your health. “One reason we’re concerned about balance is because of the risk of falls, which can lead to injuries that can affect movement, mental health and overall health,” says Dr. Hersh.
If you’re having trouble with balance, it may lead to decreased ability to complete activities of daily living, care for chronic conditions like diabetes and address cognitive issues.
What causes poor balance?
Many systems in our bodies need to work for balance—our eyes, the vestibular system in our ears, our skeletal muscles, our brain and more. “Our ability to balance reflects all the interconnected systems that are required to effectively process the experience of standing,” says Dr. Hersh. “So we can use balance as a ‘red flag’ that something else might be going on. “It helps us assess risk and introduce strategies to reduce that risk.”
You can’t just look at balance alone; you also have to consider overall function and frailty. Geriatricians can assess your frailty by looking at your ability to complete activities of daily living, such as bathing, getting dressed, grocery shopping, taking medications and eating. They also look for the presence of chronic conditions, like diabetes or hypertension, as well as geriatric syndromes, such as dementia, delirium, falls and pressure ulcers (also known as bedsores).
How to improve balance
Dr. Hersh encourages older adults to maintain some level of physical activity throughout life. “I like to say use it or lose it,” she explains. “If you stop moving, you’ll lose your ability to move over time.”
Dynamic balance exercises are most helpful for improving balance, and include:
- Walking up stairs
- Using just your toes or heels to walk
- Practicing yoga or dance
- Practicing balancing on one foot (with adequate support around you to reduce your risk of falling)
It’s also important to think about modifying your environmental factors to help with your balance. If you walk with a cane, have a physical therapist help you find the right size. Make sure you have handrails in your home and grab bars wherever needed, like the shower or tub.
Seeing your healthcare providers regularly will also help you improve your balance and determine your risk of falling. “Your primary care provider can help you be proactive about managing your health by reminding you to get regular eye care, assisting in diabetes management, and taking a look at your medications to ensure they aren’t impairing your balance,” says Dr. Hersh.
To stay up-to-date on health and wellness tips and advancements in treatment from our experts, please visit JeffersonHealth.org.
This article was previously published on JeffersonHealth.org on March 2, 2023.
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