Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Your recent column about balance was very useful. My dad is in his late 70s, and I want to help him stay on his feet. Are there specific techniques or exercises that he can do? It would be great if we could do them together.

Dear Reader: We love the idea of you and your dad working on this together. And while the focus of your letter is to help him, the truth is that you're both going to benefit. That's because research shows that balance begins to decline when we hit our 50s and 60s, years before obvious signs like stumbling or falls begin to appear.

For people who don't have specific medical issues that can affect balance, such as neurological or inner ear disorders, the main areas of focus are muscle strength, mobility and awareness. (After the balance test we're about to suggest, you'll be tempted to add endurance to the list.)

The good news is that, no matter your age -- and again, barring medical issues -- each of these areas can be improved. Because we don't want to rush the answer on this very important topic, we'll use this column to lay out the basics. In our next column, we'll follow up with some specific techniques and exercises.

Let's begin with a (deceptively) simple test: Stand on one foot.

Sounds easy, right? So let's add a level of difficulty -- stand on one foot for as long as you can. Grab a watch or smartphone, spot each other to prevent a fall (or, if you're going solo, stand by a wall or chair) and time how long each of you lasts.

Does it take a few tries to find your balance? How long before you have to make physical adjustments, like moving your arms, to remain steady? Also take note of which muscles become most fatigued. Be sure to do the test on each foot. We tend to favor one side of the body over the other. You may be surprised by how different the balance times on your left and right sides can be.

Although the goal here is one minute, many of us, no matter our age, won't make it that long. In a recent study, researchers found that for those in their 50s, the average one-foot stand lasted 45 seconds. That dropped to 40 seconds for people in their 60s, and 27 seconds for those in their 70s. People older than 80 generally managed 12 seconds of balance before the other foot came down.

The main reasons for a decline in balance are loss of muscle tone and the effects of aging. We can change the former and, to a certain degree, learn techniques to compensate for the latter. What we can't afford to do is let nature take its course and hope for the best. One-third of all adults 65 and older suffer a fall each year, many with grave consequences. With our next column, we'll offer some specifics on how to stay on your feet.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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