Consumer Reports: Loss of balance leaves many older people injured in falls

November 21, 2011

Having poor balance is a health risk. Falls are the leading cause of hospital admissions for people older than 65, with one in three experiencing a fall each year. Twenty to 30 percent of those incidents result in such injuries as lacerations, hip fractures and head traumas, as well as hospital bills averaging nearly $18,000 per patient, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s important to understand, however, that this risk of falling isn’t caused simply by aging, but rather [is] an effect of illnesses and impairments common in older adults,” says Mary Tinetti, a professor of internal medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. “In general, the more chronic health conditions you have, the more likely you are to suffer a fall.”

Here’s why.

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.

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