Why Balance Is Important as We Age

June 20, 2024

life balance as we age

You might wonder why balance is so important. It’s the unsung hero that keeps us upright, ensures our mobility, and reduces our risk of falling, which becomes increasingly vital with each passing year.

Here are some practical strategies for fall prevention. You'll discover a variety of balancing exercises that can be seamlessly integrated into your daily routine, from yoga designed to strengthen your core and improve your stability, to specific techniques aimed at mitigating the fear of falling and foster long-term health and well-being.

What is Balance?

Balance is the ability to maintain the body's center of mass over its base of support. This intricate skill involves several body systems that work together to enable stable movement and orientation. The systems include sensory input from vision, proprioception (touch), and the vestibular system (inner ear), which collectively help in determining direction, speed of movement, and maintaining posture under varying conditions.

Systems Involved in Balance

  1. Visual System: Provides images of the environment, helping you understand your position relative to the world around you. It is crucial for detecting motion between you and your surroundings. If you want to see just how important this system is, just stand close to something stable and easy to grab on to, then stand on one foot and balance like that for 10 seconds. Now close your eyes and balance on one foot; you'll see the distinct difference.
  2. Proprioceptive System: Involves sensors in your muscles, tendons, and joints. These sensors inform the brain about the position of different body parts, aiding in maintaining balance especially when you cannot see your feet or the ground.
  3. Vestibular System: Located in the inner ear, this system is key for detecting movements and changes in the position of the head. It consists of the utricle, saccule, and three semicircular canals filled with fluid that moves in response to head motions, providing critical information about balance to the brain.

 

Together, these systems send signals to the brain stem, which integrates the information with learned movements from the cerebellum and cerebral cortex. This integration helps you respond to changes in your environment, ensuring that you maintain balance whether you are stationary or in motion.

The Decline of Balance with Aging

Common Causes of Balance Decline

  1. Medications and Medical Conditions: Balance can be compromised by medications and underlying health issues. Always consult with your healthcare provider if you notice balance disturbances when starting new medications or if existing conditions seem to worsen your equilibrium. Conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and vision problems are notorious for affecting balance.
  2. Inner Ear Disorders: The labyrinth of the inner ear plays a pivotal role in maintaining balance. Conditions like labyrinthitis, triggered by inflammation, can lead to vertigo and imbalance. It's essential to seek medical advice if symptoms of ear disorders arise, as they can directly impact your stability.
  3. Sensory Decline: With age, the sensory systems that contribute to balance—such as foot/ankle sensory input, visual input, and vestibular input—begin to decline. For instance, older people experience a significant reduction in foot position awareness and vestibular function post-65. This sensory decline necessitates a greater reliance on visual input to maintain balance, highlighting the importance of regular eye check-ups.
  4. Physical Changes: Changes in the way you walk, known as gait, can also affect balance. An improper stride might lead to balance loss, accompanied by symptoms like faintness, nausea, or unsteadiness. These physical alterations, coupled with reduced muscle strength, contribute to the heightened risk of falls and balance issues in older adults.

Understanding these factors is the first step towards mitigating the risks associated with balance decline.

Exercises to Improve Balance Basic Balance

Exercises - stand close to something stable that you can hold if needed.

  1. Single Leg Balance: Start by standing behind a steady chair, holding onto the back for support. Lift your right foot, balancing on your left. Aim to hold this position as long as possible before switching feet.
  2. Tree Pose: Shift your weight onto one foot, placing the sole of the other foot against your ankle, shin, or thigh. Keep a chair nearby for support. Hold for up to 1 minute, then switch sides.
  3. Heel-to-Toe Walk: Position your heel right in front of your toes and walk in a straight line for 20 steps, focusing on maintaining balance.
  4. Rock the Boat: Stand with feet hip-width apart, lift one foot off the ground, bending the knee, and hold. Switch sides after 30 seconds.
  5. Weight Shifts: From a standing position, shift your weight onto one foot and lift the other, holding the position for 30 seconds before switching.

Advanced Balance Techniques

  1. Straight-Line Walk: Extend your arms to the sides and walk in a straight line, pausing each time you lift your foot. Aim for 20 to 30 steps.
  2. Flamingo Stand: Shift your weight onto one foot and extend the other leg forward. Increase difficulty by reaching your hands toward your extended foot. Repeat on both sides.
  3. Back Leg Raises: Using a chair for support, shift your weight and lift one leg back and up. Do 10 repetitions per leg.
  4. Heel-to-Toe Raises: Stand with support and alternate between raising your heels and toes. Perform 10 to 20 repetitions. 
  5. Marching: Holding onto a support, lift your knees as high as possible, alternating sides for 20 repetitions.

These exercises, ranging from basic to advanced, are designed to improve your stability and coordination, crucial for maintaining independence and preventing falls as you age. Regular practice can significantly enhance your quality of life, allowing you to stay active and safe.

The Importance of Early Intervention

Preventative Measures

  1. Annual Fall Risk Evaluation: Engage in yearly assessments using evaluation tools to gauge fall risk, especially if over 65 or after significant health changes. This proactive approach can pinpoint vulnerabilities early on.
  2. Medication Review: Schedule regular check-ins with your healthcare provider to examine medications and supplements for side effects that may elevate fall risk. Adjustments might be necessary to minimize impacts on balance and cognition.
  3. Exercise Programs like Yoga: Participation in tailored exercise routines focusing on strength and balance is paramount. Activities like yoga not only enhance stability but also significantly lower fall risks.
  4. Home Safety Audit: Conduct thorough inspections of living spaces to identify and rectify potential fall hazards. Simple modifications, like securing rugs and ensuring adequate lighting, can make a substantial difference. 
  5. Footwear Adjustment: Opt for shoes that offer support and have nonskid soles to prevent slips and falls. Proper footwear is a straightforward yet effective fall prevention strategy.

Lifestyle Changes

  1. Healthy Eating: Incorporate a balanced diet rich in nutrients to support overall health and mitigate risks associated with chronic conditions that could impair balance.
  2. Hydration: Staying adequately hydrated is essential for maintaining physical function and balance.
  3. Physical Activity: Regular engagement in physical activities improves strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility, crucial for fall prevention. Aim for a mix of aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and balance-enhancing exercises.
  4. Sleep Quality: Prioritize getting a good night's sleep as it plays a critical role in cognitive function and physical health, directly impacting balance and fall risk.
  5. Vision Care: Regular eye check-ups ensure that vision impairments, which can affect balance, are addressed promptly.
  6. Assistive Devices: If recommended by a healthcare provider, use aids like canes or walkers to maintain stability and independence.

Early intervention through these preventative measures and lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk of falls and improve quality of life as you age. Engaging in these practices fosters a safer environment, promotes health, and empowers you to maintain independence and mobility.



Also in Health Talk

The Connection Between Sitting and Dementia
The Connection Between Sitting and Dementia

July 19, 2024

Read More
what is cognitive reserve how to improve it
Cognitive Reserve: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Enhance It

July 12, 2024

Read More
maintaining a healthy weight why it is important
Maintaining a Healthy Weight – Why it Matters

July 05, 2024

Read More