Falls are serious business. In fact, they’re the leading cause of injury for those over the age of 65. Every year, one in three adults age 65 and older slips and falls, sustaining injuries such as hip fractures and head trauma, thus greatly increasing the risk of death. In 2010, there were over 2.3 million non-fatal falls among the elderly, and more than 662,000 of them required hospitalization, at a total cost of over $30 billion. The death rates from falls among older men and women are increasing, having risen sharply over the past decade. Fortunately, whether you are already at that age or still in your 30s or 40s, there is something you can do to prevent becoming a statistic—test and take steps to improve your balance.
Most people—whatever their age—tend not to think very much about their sense of balance until after they’ve suffered a fall. They simply take it for granted and assume that their balance is as keen as it ever was. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. The truth is that people typically start developing balance problems long before they notice them.
But if you are honest in your self-assessment, there are subtle signs and “tip-offs” that your balance may not be quite what you think it is. For example, do you find yourself having to rely on handrails when you go up and down stairs? Do you have to sit down when putting on your shoes or stepping into pants? Do you need to use the armrests of your chair to “push off” when getting out of a chair? If you stand with your feet close together, do you feel “wobbly” and have to steady yourself?
If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, it might be prudent to ask your doctor, chiropractor, or other healthcare provider to check your balance next time you have an appointment. He or she can perform some simple tests that will determine whether your balance is as it should be. And if your sense of balance is starting to show signs of decline, your chiropractor can help you to improve the situation.
Balance is managed by the brain’s cerebellum region, which controls movement and coordination, but works in conjunction with three other systems—the visual system, the vestibular (inner ear) system, and the proprioceptive system (the sense of body position in space). All these systems work with your muscles (which themselves lose tone and strength with age) and with your spine and spinal cord to adjust to slippery surfaces and maintain balance.
As you pass the age of 40, all of these systems begin to deteriorate and perform less well. This process is often accelerated because people become more sedentary as they age and begin to rely more heavily on their visual system. This presents another problem, because their aging visual system can’t work as quickly as their vestibular system. As a result, older people start to become shakier on their feet. As they become more aware (and frightened) of this shakiness, they often lose their self-confidence and react by becoming even less active. This in turn allows their sense of balance to deteriorate even further, creating a sort of downward spiral or vicious cycle.
A balance test can detect these issues early, and simple exercises practiced a few times each week can, to some extent, halt age-related deterioration. Such exercises are extremely important if you are already over 65, but beginning to perform them when you are younger has been shown to have powerful preventative value in helping people to maintain their balance as they age. In other words, by performing a few simple balance exercises now, when you are still in your 30s or 40s, you can protect yourself from falls when you reach your golden years. So speak to your chiropractor or other healthcare provider about this. And when you do, be sure that you ask them to test your balance and to also prescribe a simple exercise program to help you improve it. Your older self will thank you in the future!