By Lorie Swaydan, Huntsman World Senior Games

Recently I turned 63. One of the many changes I’ve noticed is that my balance is not what it used to be. I have to be more careful when walking on uneven terrain, and yoga poses are trickier than they used to be. So I decided to investigate how the balance system works, what might be potential problems that loss of balance could indicate, and what are things I can do to maintain or even improve my balance.

How do We Keep Our Balance?

The first thing I learned is that keeping our balance is complicated! Good balance allows us to do simple things like stand upright or walk without wobbling or falling. To maintain balance, our brains are in a constant loop of communication, feedback and adjustment with our ears, eyes, muscles and joints. Our inner ear or vestibular system is a fascinating and complex group of organs that monitor motion and send information about the position of the head to the cerebellum. Each semicircular ear canal monitors different movements such as nodding or rotating the head. Fluid inside the canals moves when the head changes position and stimulates tiny hairs that send the messages to the brain. Two other organs in the ear called the otolith organs monitor, “,,,linear acceleration, gravitational forces and tilting movements.”  Crystals in these organs are displaced by movement. This stimulates tiny hairs which then relay the information to the brain.

Working in conjunction with the vestibular system, the visual system includes our eyes, muscles and parts of the brain that allow us to see. Good vision helps us avoid obstacles, detect uneven surfaces and monitor the steepness of steps. When we are moving, this system also helps us to keep objects in focus and maintain a sense of where we are in space (Proprioception).  In addition, the muscles and joints and even the skin provide information to the brain, which then uses this information to send messages to various parts of the body to move or make adjustments to keep us upright. Like I said, balance is complicated!

Potential Problems

Maintaining good balance is important throughout life, but it becomes more difficult as we age. According to Berkeley Wellness “... about one in three people over age 65 (not living in nursing homes) fall at least once a year—and 10 to 15 percent of these falls result in serious injury.” Furthermore, the CDC claims that over 300,000 people over the age of 65 experience hip fractures, and over 95% of these fractures are caused by falls. There are a variety of reasons that older people lose their balance. For example, poor balance can result from a loss of muscle strength and joint mobility. Our core provides the foundation for our bodies. It is made up of 29 different muscles, including the abdominal muscles, the muscles in the back and our gluteal or butt muscles. When our core becomes weak, our ability to balance deteriorates. Our leg muscles and even our upper body muscles also provide stability for avoiding falls and for completing everyday tasks. Therefore, maintaining strength in our muscles is paramount to good balance especially as we age.

Along with losing strength in our muscles, changes in vision such as cataracts or glaucoma can interfere with balance as can problems associated with hearing loss or other conditions which affect the inner ear such as vertigo or Meniere’s Disease.  Problems in all of these areas are associated with aging, but there are things that we can do to mitigate these obstacles to maintaining good balance. 

What Can We Do?

  1. Protect our hearing. Some hearing loss as we age is unavoidable, but we can protect our ears from exposure to loud noise by wearing ear plugs or other ear protection. We can also have regular hearing tests and watch out for colds and flu symptoms that affect the ears.
  2. Take care of our eyes. Catching eye diseases early, such as age-related macular degeneration, can help us avoid vision loss so annual eye screenings are important. We can also protect our eyes by wearing sunglasses, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly to help maintain a healthy weight and manage blood pressure. 
  3. Yoga and Tai Chi are especially good ways to improve balance.  Tai Chi uses slow, balanced movements in a sequence to develop overall strength and balance. Using breathing techniques, mindfulness and a variety of balance exercises, yoga helps to improve overall muscle tone and core strength. Try some yoga poses with your eyes shut to increase the challenge! 
  4. Keep moving.  Regular exercise will develop and maintain muscle strength. Perhaps start with walking and pay attention to your body’s alignment in order to maintain good posture as you move. Incorporate basic core exercises such as bridges, planks, and opposite arm and leg lifts into your daily routine. Exercises that specifically focus on balance are also helpful, such as walking heel to toe in a straight line, or doing a “Flamingo Stand.” More challenging exercises  add weights, bands and more complex movements. 

Maintaining good balance protects us from falls, but it also improves our ability to stay active and independent. Simple movements like reaching for something on a shelf, walking on unpaved trails or riding a bike all require good balance. I had no idea that keeping my balance was so complicated, but I’m glad to have learned that there are things I can do to maintain and even improve my balance.