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7 Surprising Things that Affect Your Balance

Vision, hearing and medications can all play a part in how steady you are

By Linda Melone

Walking on an icy sidewalk or stepping into a hidden hole in the ground can easily cause you to lose your balance and fall, of course. But some balance challenges aren’t so obvious.

Changes in your vision and hearing, certain medications and even sleepiness can create risky teetering situations. Below, experts talk about seven less-than- obvious reasons you may find yourself picking yourself up off the ground and how to address them.
1. Your vision isn’t what it used to be  Visual cues are a significant component of balance, says Dr. Jason Rice of Loyola University Health System. “While everyone's eyesight declines at a different rate, it can lead to difficulties with balance," Rice says.
Poor vision may also cause a person to misjudge distance when reaching to grasp an object, which can lead to a fall. Yearly optometry visits and corrective lenses can resolve most issues.
2. You’re hard of hearing  If others tell you you’re having trouble hearing them, pay attention. Impaired hearing can increase the risk of a fall.

(MORE: How to Manage Hearing Loss
“A person may not hear something or someone coming towards them that may bump them,” says Dr. Joe Rosenthal, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “They may also be startled when they did not hear someone approaching them, which can lead to a fall.”
Consult an audiologist for an evaluation and treatment. 
3. Your meds make you dizzy  Dizziness and lightheadedness as a side effect of certain medications can also cause you to take a dive, particularly with blood pressure medications, says Rice. “This happens especially with position changes. When we stand up from a lying or seated position, our bodies have to very quickly adjust to keep blood pumping to our brains. The mechanism that allows our bodies to do this are often the same mechanisms that can lead to high blood pressure,” he notes.
Medications that blunt this process result in a brief drop in blood pressure when standing. Reduce your risk by standing up slowly to allow your body time to adjust.
4. You’re sleep-deprived Not getting enough sleep can cause grogginess during the day and result in a slower response to stimuli around you, says Rosenthal.
“You’ll also be at increased risk of tripping over objects in your path you did not notice,” he says.
If you have difficulty sleeping, assess your nighttime habits. Ideally, you want to go to bed around the same time each night and wake up the same time each morning, says Rosenthal. “Turn off electronics, including TV and music, before going to sleep and avoid caffeine in the evening.”

(MORE: Learn How to Enjoy Better Sleep
If you’re still having trouble, talk with your physician to assess other potential causes of sleep impairment, such as restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea  and side effects from medications.
5. You enjoy a glass of wine  The heart-health benefits of wine are widely known, but even small amounts can affect the balance and movement centers of the brain, says Rosenthal. Wine and alcohol, in general, lead to slow reaction times, which can contribute to a fall.
How much alcohol affects balance depends on each individual's alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme which breaks down alcohol, says Dr. Pouya Bahrami of HealthCare Partners in Los Angeles. Some people are mildly or severely deficient in the enzyme, which can affect the concentration of alcohol and brain function. Levels of many enzymes begin to taper off with age, making us more susceptible to negative effects of alcohol at any amount consumed.
6. You have diabetes  While people with diabetes are generally well aware of the risks of high blood sugar, low blood sugar also must be considered. Certain medications used to treat diabetes work by directly lowering blood sugar. “If these medications are taken without an adequate meal, blood sugar can drop too low and cause dizziness, falls or even loss of consciousness,” Rice says.
If you have diabetes, be sure to check your blood sugar as your doctor recommends. Low blood sugars can be treated with fruit juice immediately, but should also be discussed with a physician to assess and address any other more serious issues.
7. Your house is an obstacle course  Falls at home account for nearly 9 million visits to the emergency room each year and are one of the leading causes of unintentional injuries in the U.S., according to the National Safety Council

(MORE: Give Your Home an Ergonomic Makeover)
Reduce the risk of falling at home by taking a quick assessment of obstacles that present a tripping risk.
Move throw rugs and keep the floor clear of clutter to reduce the risk of tripping. In addition, be alert for pets, especially small ones, that can run in front of a person, potentially causing you to stumble or trip.  

Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.

Linda Melone is a freelance writer based in southern California. Read More
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