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Health and wellbeing series - facts about balance

seniors-balancing.jpg
Published Wednesday 28 November 2018
  • Aged Care

Most of us can stand up and walk without giving it a second thought. We take good balance for granted, until it is impaired.

As we get older, our balance decreases and falls may become more common.

Exactly how our body keeps balance may surprise you.

Our sense of balance depends on 3 main sensory systems in our body working together – our vision, our inner ear (vestibular system), and our muscles, joints, and skin (proprioceptive system).

For most of us, vision is the term used to describe how clear things are. In reality, vision helps us maintain our balance and navigate our physical world. It is thought that between half and two-thirds of the brain is used for our visual processing. Our vision is such a powerful sense that it can override information from the other senses – for example, if you’re in a stationary vehicle, and another vehicle starts to move, you may feel like you are moving when you’re not – your vision made you feel like your vehicle was moving in the opposite direction.

Our inner ear (vestibular system) is the next system that guides our balance. It helps us sense motion, orientates us in space and detects gravity. People with vestibular disorders may experience symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo (spinning sensation), jumping vision, unsteadiness, ‘brain fog’, nausea/vomiting, hearing loss and ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Problems with the inner ear may be caused by a virus, a trauma, poisoning (ototoxicity), autoimmune causes, migraines, and aging.

Our muscles, joints, and skin play a part in keeping our balance too. This is our proprioceptive system - sensory receptors in our muscles, joints, ligaments, and skin tell our brain where our body is in space. These receptors are sensitive to pressure and stretching sensations. Receptors in the neck can tell the brain which way the head is turned, and receptors in the ankles tell the brain how the body is moving relative to the ground and are particularly important when navigating over uneven surfaces.

All three systems are intimately connected, and work swiftly and continuously to ensure we keep our balance during our daily activities.

Our balance gets worse with age due to a decline of the three systems, combined with the reduced muscle strength associated with ageing. This can have a profound impact on our balance and increases the risk of falls. Falls are a leading reason for older people being admitted to hospital or a nursing home. Falls can also lead to older people losing their confidence and becoming withdrawn.

There are simple, everyday measures around the home that you can take to help prevent a fall. They include:

  • removing clutter
  • ensuring that all areas of the home are well lit
  • using non-slip mats and grab-rails in the bathroom
  • mopping up spills to avoid wet floors
  • wearing supportive footwear
  • using a mobility aid, such as a stick or walker.

You may want to have a medicine review if your medicine is causing side effects, such as dizziness.  A vision test may also be beneficial if you are having problems with your eyesight.

Research has shown that older people who take part in regular strength and balance training are less likely to have a fall. Many physiotherapists offer special balance programs for older people at community centres and local gyms. Exercise programs that can be carried out at home are also available.

The health and wellbeing series is brought to you by WMQ's allied health team.

We offer allied health services to both residential aged care residents and to the wider community through our therapy centres. To find out more about the services we can offer you, visit our therapy, respite and wellness webpage or phone us on 1300 541 648 or email: contactus@wmq.org.au.

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