Improving Balance as You Age

Post Date: December 2016  |  Category: Senior Health

Photo of older man and woman being active outside

A few positive lifestyle changes can help you improve your balance so you can continue to enjoy your favorite activities.

Getting older, for many of us, is a mixed bag: even as we get wiser, we may experience new challenges when it comes to our physical limitations. Sure, most of us can't enter a triathlon anymore, and our 8 a.m. runs may have become 6 a.m. sunrise walks.

As we learn to appreciate our bodies' new time clocks and preferences, we may still make assumptions about what we can accomplish—and what we can't avoid. When it comes to improving balance, making positive lifestyle changes can help you prove that you are in control of these "limitations" and how they affect your life.

You may already know that your sense of balance changes with age. You may have seen older relatives start to adjust their activities to reduce their risk of falling. As you enjoy your own vitality, don't give into the kind of thinking that says you only have "so much time left" to be active. While balance problems and falling are common as we age, they are not inevitable.

Read on to discover simple tips for improving balance as you age.

What Is Balance?

Your vestibular system in your inner ear controls your balance. This system continuously processes feedback from other body systems—including your eyes, bones, joints, and more—and packages all of this information up into regular reports for your brain.

These messages update your brain on the latest position of your head and body, the speed and angle at which you're moving through space, and any obstacles in your environment. Your brain responds by sending updated instructions to your body for how to adjust your posture, visual focus, and balance, so that you can continue to hold your position in space.

When you have "good balance," all of your systems are working together in a smooth and timely way to help you stay upright and stable, even as conditions around you change. For example, the better your balance, the easier it is to stay steady when walking on a slippery sidewalk, bumping into furniture, or picking something up from the ground.

When your sense of balance decreases, it becomes harder to hold onto a stable center of gravity. The risk of balance problems increases with age, alongside the risk of health conditions that affect balance. Falls become more common when balance is challenged, and falling can cause major life changes in your older years.

Why Does Balance Matter?

Each year, 2.8 million older Americans are treated in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries. One in five of these adults incurs a serious injury, such as a broken bone or head injury.

These injuries often lead to changes in the body and mind; new limitations in physical mobility are made worse by the fear of falling again. For many older adults, these combined changes lead to less physical activity, more social isolation, and an overall decrease in quality of life.

When balance is preserved, it carries into every aspect of your life: your ability to exercise, head out to see family and friends, stay on top of household tasks, and more. Balance in body adds up to balance in life: when you can hold your center of physical gravity, you can choose daily activities that reflect your ambitions, not your limitations.

What's Age Got to Do With It?

When any of the body systems that play a part in balance change, it can throw your whole system off. As your brain struggles to process information that doesn't add up, you may feel as though you're spinning, floating, or falling. This disconnect from your body's real position in space can lead to a fall.

Many of the changes that lead to balance problems are associated with conditions that are common as we age, including:

  • Inner ear problems, such as an abnormal buildup of calcium particles (also known as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or BPPV) or damage related to ear infections
  • Side effects from medications, from high blood pressure prescriptions to painkillers
  • Head injuries
  • Low blood pressure
  • Arthritis
  • Eye or muscle imbalances

In some cases, the cause of balance problems is unknown.

How to Improve Your Balance

Talk to your doctor if you develop symptoms common to a balance disorder. Improving balance can be as easy as making some simple lifestyle changes:

  • Adopt exercise programs that strengthen your balance, such as yoga and Tai Chi.
  • Adjust your medications, if necessary. Talk with your doctor or Rite Aid Pharmacist if you notice any changes in your ability to balance while taking a medication. You may be able to switch medications or adjust your dosage.
  • If Meniere's disease is causing your balance disorder, making dietary changes, such as reducing your salt intake and eliminating caffeine and alcohol, can help. This can lower fluid buildup in your inner ear and help you manage your blood pressure.
  • If orthostatic hypertension is affecting your balance, take it slowly when adjusting your posture; stand up slowly and avoid crossing your legs when you're seated.
  • Prevent ear infections. Wash your hands frequently and ask your doctor about the right schedule for your annual flu shot and other immunizations.

Above all, don't accept that balance problems and falls are an unavoidable part of aging. By making some small lifestyle changes, you can start improving your balance so you can stay on solid ground far into your later years.

 

Sources:

National Institutes of Health, Balance Problems

National Institute on Aging, Sample Exercises: Balance

Mayo Clinic, Balance Problems: Overview

Mayo Clinic, Dehydration

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Balance Disorders

Vestibular Disorders Association, Improving Balance with Tai Chi

Vestibular Disorders Association, Balance and Aging

American Heart Association, Strength and Balance Exercises

WebMD, Six Yoga Poses That Age Well

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Important Facts About Falls


These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise, or medication regime.