A person’s ability to balance is influenced by many factors, including vision, gait, inner-ear functioning, blood pressure, muscle strength and posture. The brain integrates information it receives and uses it to tell your body how to move safely. It can compensate if one or two of those factors are compromised, “but it’s more difficult to overcome multiple problems to the system,” Tinetti says.
For example, diabetes can worsen vision and desensitize nerves in the feet. Depression is known to increase the risk of falling, although Tinetti says researchers don’t know exactly how this happens. Hypertension drugs can cause dizziness or a drop in blood pressure upon standing. “In fact, a lot of medications affect balance; many drugs that target the brain increase your risk of falling,” she says, adding that sleep aids are some of the worst offenders.
If you’ve had unexplained falls or feel unsteady on your feet, or if someone notices that you seem wobbly, see your doctor to check on any underlying causes. You might be referred to a physical therapist, who can evaluate your balance and suggest strengthening exercises.
Taking a quick at-home balance test can also help define your risk. Get up from a chair, walk 10 feet, turn around, walk back and sit down. Any sign of unsteadiness should be of concern, Tinetti says.
Other strategies to bolster balance include yoga, tai chi (the Chinese martial art of slow, rhythmic movements), and low-impact dancing. It’s important to strengthen your arms, too, since you use them to steady yourself. It might be worth scheduling a few sessions with a certified personal trainer. At home, remove throw rugs and fix slippery surfaces to avoid missteps and falls.
Copyright 2011. Consumers Union of United States Inc.