Difficulty maintaining balance are extremely pressing problems that could impact one’s safety and well-being at any age, potentially signaling the presence of a health problem. The people who are able to maintain good balance around the clock, in any given set of circumstances- whether they are standing still or moving-can control the position of their body with ease. A healthy sense of balance enables individuals to get up from their chairs in a matter of a few seconds or bend over without falling, walk on any type of surface without staggering, or climb the stairs safely.
On the other hand, balance problems could make it very difficult or virtually impossible for people of all ages, especially seniors, to complete daily assignments without putting their own safety and comfort on the line. Aging people are especially exposed to risks associated with balance deficits, considering that they are also susceptible to other age-specific health concerns that may threaten their mobility, such as surgeries, diabetes, or fractures.
The Basics of Maintaining Balance Control
As straightforward as it may seem, maintaining balance is actually a fairly complex process depending on three key elements: our sensory system that sends information related to the position of our body in our environment, our brain’s ability to analyze this information, and our joints and muscles that work together to coordinate the movements required to preserve a normal balance. The motion sensors in our inner ear, our vision, ankles, joints, and feet are the main components of our sensory system.
In other words, these components allow us to identify the main particularities of any environment that we’re in, and act accordingly. For example, our feet and our eyes can help us figure out whether or not a certain surface is moving or uneven. Normally, we don’t have to lift a finger to control our balance. Maintaining a normal balance is a task that is automatically accomplished without our attention or conscious participation. When the “auto pilot” function is disabled, we are forced to overcome certain abnormal sensations and preserve our balance. This process requires our full conscious cooperation and may lead to additional symptoms, such as fatigue or minimized attention span. People suffering from a balance disorder may be dealing with a health problem impacting the functionally of one of the three important systems mentioned above. In some cases, multiple systems may be affected; in such situations, the patients may be unaware of the fact that they are losing their balance.
What Happens to Our Balance as We Age?
Seniors are more exposed to this risk factor for various reasons, given that the normal activities of the brain centers and senses are more likely to be disrupted by infectious diseases, degenerative diseases, or several neglected or poorly treated old injuries.
The good news is that loss of balance should not be considered an inevitable consequence of the aging process. While aging is responsible for a series of visible changes that take place in our bodies as we grow older, these modifications do not always trigger mobility issues or balance deficits. As a matter of fact, healthy older adults are usually able to conduct daily activities with only a few minor physical limitations.
Nonetheless, aging adults who do not monitor their overall state of health or ignore alarming symptoms such as dizziness are more likely to face risks associated with their disrupted sense of balance. Sometimes, they may feel unsteady or dizzy, and get the distinctive impression that their surroundings are in motion even when they’re standing still. In this situation, this issue could be caused by disturbances of one’s inner ear. Moreover, vertigo, the sensation of continuous spinning could also lead to balance problems. Vertigo could be linked to several causes, including Meniere’s disease, vestibular neuritis, brain problems triggered by a tumor or a stroke, and head or neck injuries.
The data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that more than 1/3 of all American adults over 65 fall every single year. According to the same source, falls represent the number one cause of injury-related fatalities among seniors in the U.S. It’s no secret that balance deficits are one of the most common reasons why aging people fall. In some cases, a fall may result in only a few minor cuts and bruises; nonetheless, when aging people fall, they are more likely to suffer severe injuries, given that they may already be dealing with reduced mobility, old fractures or injuries, and brittle bones.
In short, most aging people are forced to cope with increasing neuromuscular deficits that may result in a poor physical condition and an increased fall risk. Seniors are more likely to develop balance problems triggered by a decrease in strength and performance, correlated with gradual cognitive decline.
Falls and their long list of life-threatening or life-changing consequences, like a broken hip for instance, can have a major impact on a senior’s overall health and well-being. Moreover, elderly people who fall may be forced to limit their daily activities, or get help provided by a caregiver to preserve their independence and comfortable lifestyle in their own environment, or in a long-term care facility. Falls could make it very difficult for seniors to live independently, especially considering that such incidents could make them even more isolated, worsening existing problems such as depression and low self-esteem.
Some people who are dealing with balance deficits may suffer from several health problems, such as Parkinson’s disease, the effects of a stroke, or diabetes. Nonetheless, diseases aren’t the sole culprits for balance issues. A series of other health-related problems, such as concussions, fractures, severe sprains or ear infections may also impact one’s sense of balance in the long run. In addition, one should also acknowledge that various combinations of over-the-counter and prescription medicine could also affect the functionality of the brain or the senses, triggering permanent or temporary impairments, and making it very difficult for people to preserve their balance.
How to Prevent Balance Loss
One could minimize the risks associated with balance loss by simply addressing the causes of balance deficits listed above. There are several strategies that patients could employ to tackle each risk factor. For instance, problems affecting the functionality of the vestibular system, such as viral infections, should be diagnosed and treated by a specialist in a timely fashion. Balance issues caused by the heart or the brain should be monitored and addressed via a personalized treatment plan recommended by the patient’s doctor.
Any treatment should be accompanied by positive lifestyle changes. For instance, patients who wish to improve their balance should quit smoking, given that this bad habit can increase the risk of suffering a stroke. Strokes and several other issues disrupting the functionality of the circulatory system may cause balance problems. Balance deficits may also be generated by a head injury and self-administration of medication.
Furthermore, dietary and lifestyle changes could help seniors avoid several types of balance control problems. For instance, aging adults could alleviate the symptoms of Ménière’s disease, the culprit for hearing and balance problems, by avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and eating more low-salt foods.
The Role of Therapy in Identifying and Treating Balance Deficits
Therapy plays an important part in seniors’ lives, given that it helps aging adults adapt to new environmental, health and lifestyle-related challenges, stay active, and avoid risks associated with falls and/or reduced mobility. Sustained physical therapy allows patients to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. In addition, these two benefits enable them to avoid or minimize balance problems caused by elevated blood pressure. Furthermore, physical therapists specialized in fall prevention strategies could give patients the expert advice that they may need to prevent balance problems caused by low blood pressure. For instance, therapists may advise their clients to stay hydrated at all times, maintain a correct posture, and pay more attention to their body’s movement.
Most importantly, physical therapists could help their clients do series of personalized exercises, designed to boost four key elements: strength, endurance, flexibility and balance. Even the safest, simplest exercises, like side leg or back leg raises, standing on one foot, or balance walk could give the elderly the chance to gain control over their bodies and control their balance in a more effective manner. A personalized set of exercises meant to improve fitness, balance and strength levels, tailored to the patients’ medical history, needs and physical condition could help the elderly reduce risks of falling, regain their confidence and independence, and stay active for many more years to come.
Healthcare Therapy Services, Inc. utilizes a 16-point fall prevention program that assesses the whole person, environment and multiple other factors affecting the root cause for falls. As a contract therapy provider, we have implemented programs in long term care and assisted living communities as well as in the home to address, prevent and create strategies to reduce falls and problems with balance. Our highly trained physical, occupational and speech therapists are the experts on improving and maintaining balance.
For more information on our programs our other services, go to www.htstherapy.com.