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Have you lost your balance lately?

Posted by on in Health
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Loss of balance can be a very disabling problem, especially for the elderly. Current research shows that one out of older people balancingthree older adults, age 65 and older, fall each year. Falls are the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions each year.

As we age the risk factors associated with falls become more apparent.  Muscle weakness, vision problems, side affects to certain medications, low blood pressure, diabetes, and environmental hazards, like throw rugs and even pets, can increase an individual’s risk for falls. 

Staying physically active will dramatically reduce the risk of falling as we age. To improve balance, exercises can be done to strengthen the hips, knees, and ankles, along with challenging the vestibular system. (The vestibular system sends signals primarily to the neural structures that control our eye movements, and to the muscles that keep us upright ).

Below is a simple way to test how well you can balance. Do not try this test alone, have someone next to you so no falls occur.

Standing at the kitchen counter, wearing flat closed shoes:
1.    Cross your arms over your chest. Keep your eyes open and focus on an object in front of you. Raise one leg, bending the knee about 45 degrees and start a stopwatch.
2.    Remain on one leg, stopping the watch if you uncross the arms, lean sideways more than 45 degrees, move the leg you are standing on, or touch the raised leg to the floor.
3.    Repeat this test with the other leg.
4.    Compare your results to the norm of people in your age range.
Average Single Leg Stance Time for various ages

  • 20-59 years old – 28 to 29 seconds
  • 60-69 year – 27 seconds
  • 70-79 – 15 seconds
  • 80 and older – 6 seconds

balance testThis simple single leg stance test will give you an idea of well you can balance and shift your weight to one side. Even if there is no loss of balance with normal walking, other activities may be limited by the body’s inability to adjust if challenged.

For example, walking on an uneven surface, like grass or sand, is much more difficult than walking on tile floors or the sidewalk. The body requires more strength and mobility in the legs to maintain balance on uneven surfaces. The vestibular system also works hard to help maintain balance in the dark. This is important when we have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and our vision is somewhat eliminated from helping us know where we are in space. The vestibular system works by assessing head and body movements and helps us know where we are in relation to the space around us, especially when our eyes are closed or in the dark.

If loss of balance is noticed with standing or walking, physical therapy can help. As physical therapists, we can challenge the body’s vestibular system with different balance activities with the eyes open and closed. Walking activities are also performed to improve a patient’s balance, along with strengthening exercises for the legs. Prevent your risk of falls by staying active, and tell your doctor if you notice loss of balance during normal daily activities.

Written by Krista Magnoli, PTA @ The Physical Therapy Center of West Palm Beach.

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