Dear Doctor: I'm just about to turn 60, which -- from what I've read -- is when balance begins to become an issue. What can I do to stay steady on my feet?
Dear Reader: Although good balance is important to all of us who face the world on two legs, it's particularly vital to our well-being as we age. Unlike a child, who's likely to bounce right back up and laugh, or an adult, who comes away with a bump or a bruise, a fall for a senior citizen is a serious health risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-fourth of people over 65 have a fall each year. In 20 percent of those falls, the outcome is a serious injury, including head trauma. At least 2 million elderly people per year visit the emergency room due to injuries from a fall. Close to 300,000 of them wind up in the hospital with a hip fracture.
At its most basic, balance is the ability to evenly distribute your weight and remain in control. We use our ability to balance when we stand, sit, walk, run and perform an infinite range of physical tasks. To achieve and maintain balance, our bodies use a complex set of systems that include muscle strength, sensory input like sight and touch, and a cluster of mechanisms in the inner ear that help with motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation.
To prevent a fall, start by reducing your risk. If you wear glasses, make sure your prescription is up-to-date. If you're on any medication, talk to your doctor about possible side effects that could affect balance.
At home, eliminate tripping hazards like uneven floors, loose rugs, stray power cords and clutter on floors. Be sure your home, both inside and out, is well lit. Install grab bars and non-skid mats in the bathroom. Keep a flashlight by your bed for nighttime emergencies.
Staying fit and flexible makes a big difference. When you get out of a chair, try rising without using your hands. Practice standing on one foot -- balance begets balance. Walking backward, which can be a surprising challenge, can help you become more spatially aware.
Yoga and tai chi have both been shown to help with balance. Slow and graceful, these exercises not only help to maintain balance, they can improve it. Weight-bearing exercises to strengthen the arms, back and legs are effective as well.
Many community centers offer a wide range of exercise classes specifically tailored to people who are older. It's a great way to get fit and meet people with whom you can exercise in the future.
And in case you have any doubt that now is a great time to start working on balance, an intriguing new study backs you up. When researchers analyzed 775 participants between the ages of 30 and 90 over the course of several years, they discovered that the decline in balance actually begins during your 50s.
(Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095.)