According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, one in three adults aged 65 and over will fall each year. That’s a lot of people! But, here’s the good news – you don’t have to be one of them. Over the next few weeks, let’s talk about balance… how it works, why you might be finding it difficult these days, and how you can improve YOUR balance with specific exercises. Welcome to Part 1 of our Fall Proof! series.
How Balance Works
In order to maintain your balance, your brain uses information from three sources. The first source is your vestibular system. This refers to your inner ear and accounts for about 60% of the information that goes to your brain about balance. The other 40% is divided between your eyes and your body’s sense of its muscles and joints, which is known as proprioception. You feel dizzy or off-balance when these three sources of information don’t correspond.
What Causes Balance Problems?
There are many causes of balance problems, especially as you age. Let’s look at some of the culprits.
Aging – It turns out that as you age, the three systems we discussed above just don’t work the same. There’s a decline in the ability of these systems to receive and integrate sensory information, which contributes to poor balance.
Medications – Some types of drugs can make you feel dizzy. This can include antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, drugs to control high blood pressure, sedatives, and tranquilizers.
Inner Ear Problems – If you suffer from inner ear problems, your sense of balance may be jeopardized. Remember from above that 60% of your balance information comes from your vestibular system. That means that conditions such as vertigo, ear infection, Meniere’s disease, and migraines can have a great affect on your balance.
Reduced Blood Flow – You can experience an unbalanced, dizzy sensation if your brain doesn’t receive enough blood. This can occur for a variety of reasons. Low blood pressure, for example, can lead to dizziness when you stand up too quickly. Other conditions that can affect your balance are congenital heart disease, atherosclerosis, heart arrhythmias, stroke, and TIA.
Neurological Disorders – The brain, spinal cord, and nerves make up your nervous system. Together they control how your body works; thus, diseases of the nervous system can have a strong influence on your sense of balance. Some of these conditions include people who have had a stroke or suffer from spinal cord injury. Also, people with Parkinson’s disease and CMT can experience balance issues.
What Can I Do to Improve MY Balance?
There are a number of exercises designed specifically to help you improve your balance. These exercises are geared towards improving the function and coordination of those three systems involved in sending information to your brain and keeping you stable. Here are a few examples.
You can strengthen your eyes and visual system by standing on an unstable surface (like a foam pad, balance board, or Bosu) while staring at a spot on the wall straight ahead of you. In this case, you’ll rely on your eyes and visual acuity to continually focus on the wall ahead and keep you upright. When you stand on the unstable surface, you reduce the proprioception in your feet because you can’t get a sense of your body position from the solid floor. Thus, your visual system must do the work.
On the other hand, you can do specific exercises to strengthen those proprioceptors and aid in your position and movement relative to your support surface. You can improve this system (technically referred to as the somatosensory system) by standing with your feet flat on the floor. You won’t stand on an unstable surface for this one because you will be depending on the feeling in your feet to stand upright. In order to boost this system, though, you must disrupt your visual system. Otherwise, your eyes will take over. One way to do this is by holding a book out in front of your face and reading out loud as keep your balance.
As we continue to look at balance exercises, you’ll see they range from activities that are static, or motionless, which make you hold a certain position to activities that involve movement patterns. Both are important because you not only need to have balance when you’re standing still, but also as you move about your day. Stay tuned next week for more details about the exercises discussed above and for our continuation of Fall Proof! We’ll look at additional exercises that you can do to improve your current sense of balance, reduce your fear of falling, and keep YOU steady on your feet.
Stay happy, healthy, and N motion, AND REMEMBER…age is just a number!