Balance and Fall Risks as You Age
By Doyle Lee, DPT
Aging and Balance/Falls
As we get older, we are naturally at an increased risk of falls. Here is a list of contributing factors:
- As we age, our reaction times are delayed
Research shows that a natural progression that occurs as we get older is a delay in reaction times. This is important as a stumble can more readily lead to a fall since we can't move our feet fast enough to regain our balance.
- Physiologically, our bodies undergo a shift to a lower percentage of fast twitch fibers and a higher percentage slow twitch fibers
Fast twitch fibers allow for a faster response from the body once the brain receives a signal to initiate movement. Conversely, a higher percentage of slow twitch fibers as we age causes our bodies to move slower in reaction to stimuli. Although it is only a matter of tenths to hundredths of a second, that's all it takes to determine whether an individual is more or less likely to fall.
- Our body's overall balance system loses sensitivity/acuity
The human body relies on three basic systems for maintenance of balance. This includes vision, the vestibular apparatus (inner ear organ), and proprioception. The vestibular system relies on fluids within the ear canal to help us with spatial orientation, even when our eyes are closed. The proprioceptive system allows us to be aware of our body's position in space. These three systems work in unison to help prevent falls.
So what can we do to take preventative measures and minimize our risk of falls?
- Improve your ratio of fast to slow twitch fibers
When working out, focus on strengthening with fast, power-driven movements. This will stimulate a shift back towards a higher production of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
- Train your body's proprioceptive system
Luckily, balance can directly improve with practice! However, reaping the benefits of training take time (be patient!), commitment, and dedication. To challenge yourself even further, incorporate dynamic movements and/or close your eyes to minimize dependence/reliance on vision for stability.
- Modify your environment
Falls can often be avoided by making changes to your surroundings. For example, rearrange furniture in the house to allow for clear, wide, open pathways and reduce clutter so that you don't trip over objects. Changes in surfaces are a common cause of incidents/injuries. This is often the case when a floor rug is present, which poses a high risk for tripping and falling as you cross that barrier.
- Get assessed by a healthcare professional
As much as there are factors/variables that you can manipulate/improve, there are certain age-related declines that are inevitable and irreversible. Getting a comprehensive assessment from a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, can be a great way to determine which factors pose the greatest risk to you specifically. Not only that, but they may ascertain that use of an assistive device, such as a cane or walker, may be essential to ensure your safety.