When he asks people over 50 if they can stand on one foot while maintaining their balance, most will confidently reply “yes,” says Michael E. Rogers, head of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University.
“But many will begin to sway and say, ‘Oh man, I used to be able to do that,’” says Rogers, an exercise physiologist. “Once you get to 45 or 50 and beyond, your balance begins to decline. Most people don’t even notice it.”
A decline in balance, however, demands immediate attention because it can lead to a fall — the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths among older adults. More than a third of people 65 and over fall each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Poor vision or hearing loss can also lead to a fall, as can trip hazards in the home like electrical cords, throw rugs, poor lighting, even pets.
Although falls increase with age, they are not an inevitable part of aging. A variety of steps can be taken to avoid falls, beginning with balance exercises, says Rogers. Unfortunately, most exercise programs — for both younger and older adults — emphasize strength and cardio training, but pay too little attention to balance, he says.
‘Standing Strong’ Through Strength and Balance Exercises
Balance training, however, is the basis of the center’s Standing Strong program to reduce the risk of falls among older adults. Offered in senior centers around the country, the program uses elastic resistance bands to improve strength in the lower extremities and foam pads that provide an unsteady surface and challenge the body to maintain balance.
Participants have improved balance by 82 percent and decreased their fall rate from 58 percent to 16 percent, according to the center’s research.
Kathleen Cameron, senior director of the National Falls Prevention Resource Center, says the organization aims to get more balance improvement programs up and running around the country. The center is a unit of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Aging (NCOA).
Classes in Tai Chi and Yoga
“We want to do everything we can to educate people about the availability of these falls-prevention programs and get more community-based organizations to implement them,” Cameron says. Programs have become increasingly popular at Area Agencies on Aging, parks and recreation facilities, YMCAs and private health clubs. They include classes in Tai chi and yoga that can help improve balance, gait and flexibility.
Cameron wishes more older adults took the classes. “They may feel they are not functionally well enough to do the exercises. Yet many can be done from a seated position. People on walkers can do them,” Cameron says.
“We have seen people progress from using a walker, to using a cane to not using anything at all because they have functionally improved. We have even seen people who began a falls- prevention program using a walker who end up teaching a program.”
Medication Side Effects and Other Risks
Medications are a leading cause of falls, says Cameron, a pharmacist. Medications or a combination of medications for such common conditions as allergies, anxiety, insomnia or depression can lower blood pressure to the point of dizziness or light-headedness or cause daytime sleepiness or confusion, leading to a fall. Reviewing medications on a regular basis with a doctor or pharmacist is critical.
Poor vision or hearing loss can also lead to a fall, as can trip hazards in the home like electrical cords, throw rugs, poor lighting, even pets. The National Falls Prevention Resource Center along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage older adults to talk to their physicians about balance and falls prevention.
“Most physicians don’t talk to their patients about falls,” Cameron says. “They are not trained on falls and don’t see it as a serious problem.”
Some older adults have a fear of falling caused by poor balance or by a previous fall, Cameron says. The NCOA promotes “A Matter of Balance,” an evidence-based falls-prevention program shown to improve balance and reduce fear of falling. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to see if it’s available.
Falling on the Dance Floor
Barbara Nicholson was 65 when she fell and injured a knee while dancing at a social event with her husband Mort. Nicholson, a retired social worker in Cincinnati, recalls that a nurse happened to be nearby and came to her aid, sparing her a trip to the emergency room.
But the episode made her realize she was not as sure-footed as she once was. Now 73, Nicholson says she is more comfortable on her feet thanks to exercises that have improved her gait and flexibility.
“I feel more balanced, confident and strong,” says Nicholson, who takes classes at Future Life Now, a health and learning center in Cincinnati that focuses on holistic health practices.
She enrolled in a class titled “Balance, Posture and Power for 65+” taught by the center’s co-director, Cynthia Allen.
Allen said that besides nutrition, walking is the single most important thing we can do for our health.
“Anything we can do to enliven ourselves around variety and movement will create better balance.”
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