Thriving Over 50: Maintaining Your Ability To Balance With Age

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My Personal Struggle With Balance

When I began my yoga practice, I was in vestibular therapy for extreme balance issues that had been going on for a long time.  I experienced vertigo so severe that on many occasions I would end up in the emergency room on IV medications to make it stop.  Repeated testing didn’t find any obvious cause.  One doctor kept telling me that my vertigo was being caused by a faulty gallbladder. According to this doctor, the fact that I was over forty and female meant my gallbladder was the issue, and it needed to be removed.  

After some time with no answers, I gave in to the doctor’s suggestion and agreed to have my gallbladder removed.  Sadly, a few days later the vertigo came back with a vengeance.  Post surgery testing revealed that my gallbladder was normal. 

At this point I decided to make an appointment with an Ear, Nose, and Throat  (ENT) Specialist.  The ENT believed that my vertigo stemmed from silent migraines and suggested I begin vestibular therapy. I began a weekly vestibular therapy program and doing “exercises” at home trying to ease the vertigo.

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It was no secret that I had been living under tremendous stress.  A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, a kitchen remodel, being the caretaker of a sick parent and two young children, and experiencing the eventual loss of my mom left me depleted.  I was stressed to the max.

I had not been sleeping, so I went to have a sleep study.  When I went in for the results, the doctor suggested that I try yoga.  I took her suggestion to heart and started a yoga practice.  It wasn’t easy, but I immediately began to feel better. 

Over time I began to feel stronger, more at ease in my body, and calmer in my mind. My vertigo began to ease up and eventually stopped.  I started to feel more resilient to the ups and downs of daily life.  I believe this was due to the release of the stress I had been holding onto and that I didn’t know how to process before I started a mind-body practice.

My path toward wellness has been a long and dynamic one.  I have learned that healing from the inside out takes time, patience, and a willingness to keep moving forward. 

I haven’t had an issue with vertigo or migraines since I began my practice, and I hope that I never do!  What I know for sure is that I will continue my yoga practice to help manage and lower my stress level, to be more mindful, to keep my physical body strong and to challenge and strengthen my balance as I age. 

The Role Aging Plays In Balance

As a yoga teacher and wellness coach, I hear about balance issues quite frequently, especially in those who are over 50.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury.

  • Each year, 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries.

  • Over 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of a fall injury, most often because of a head injury or hip fracture.

  • Each year at least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures.

  • More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling, usually by falling sideways.

  • Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBI.)

How Balance Works 

Balance is sorted out in the sensory cortex of the brain. It takes in information from many different sources; muscle strength, visual input, the inner ear and specialized receptors in the nerves, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons.  Aging dulls our sense of balance and can cause older individuals to become less stable.

In addition, the regular sensory feedback from the joints to the brain is reduced by swollen feet and ankles and reduced flexibility. Disease such as arthritis in weight-bearing joints can cause errors in foot placement. 

Vestibular abnormalities like vertigo or inner ear infections can cause dizziness, which leads to an increase risk of falling.  Medications commonly prescribed for an older population can lead to problems with vestibular function. 

With or without injury, falls can carry a substantial quality of life impact. A growing number of older adults fear falling and as a result, limit their activities and social engagements. Lack of balance can then set off a cycle of inactivity due to instability, which can then cause muscle weakness and loss of strength.  This can result in a further physical decline, depression, social isolation, and feelings of helplessness. 

How To Maintain Balance And Prevent Falls As We Age

It is essential as we age to stay active.  In my own journey I learned that the emphasis of a health and wellness program begins to change as we get older. 

Just like an aging car needs more TLC and maintenance to keep it running optimally, so does our aging body.  Focusing on balancing becomes more of a necessity to maintain and strengthen our “balance muscle” so that we can remain steady on our feet.  Here are 4 ways to help keep you upright as you age.

Yoga

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The practice of yoga can help to increase your strength and flexibility and build and maintain your balance muscle.  After researching the use of key balancing muscles, Yoga Journal developed this 15-pose sequence to build better balance.

Strength Training

Strength training is another important component of maintenance to guard against loss of physical strength and bone density.  I have added yoga with weights to my routine for this very reason along with brisk walking a few times a week.

Although we still need basic conditioning, strength training, and a healthy mind-body practice, we also need to do some maintenance work. 

Balance Exercises

Simple exercises can help preserve and improve your balance if you have balance problems that are not tied to an illness, medication, or other specific cause. 

Here are a few basic exercises to incorporate in your routine.

  • One-legged stands:  Stand on one foot for 30 seconds (or longer,) then switch to the other foot.  Do this while waiting in line, watching TV, or brushing your teeth.  If you are at all concerned about falling, have a wall or chair nearby for support it needed.

  • Heel rises:  from standing, rise up on your toes as far as you can.  Then drop back to the starting position and repeat the process 10-20 times.  Make this move more challenging by adding hand weights.

  • Heel-toe walk:  While looking straight ahead, take 20 steps in a straight line.  Think of a sobriety test!

Sit-to-stand: without using your hands, get up from a straight–backed chair and sit back down. Repeat the action 10-20 times to improve balance and leg strength.

Additional Suggestions:

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There are steps we can take to ensure an optimal environment.  According to the Centers For Disease Control, research has identified many conditions that contribute to falling.  These are called risk factors and include the following:

  • Lower body weakness

  • Vitamin D deficiency (not enough vitamin D in your system)

  • Difficulties with walking and balance

  • Use of medicines, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, or antidepressants. Even some over-the-counter medicines can affect balance and how steady you are on your feet.

  • Vision problems

  • Foot pain or poor footwear

  • Home hazards or dangers such as broken or uneven steps, throw rugs, or floor clutter

Most falls are caused by a combination of risk factors. The more risk factors a person has, the greater their chances of falling. Many risk factors can be changed or modified to help prevent or reduce the likelihood of falls. 

Here are a few additional suggestions from the CDC

  • Have your eyes and feet checked.

  • Once a year, check with your eye doctor and update your eyeglasses if needed. Glaucoma or cataracts can increase your chances of falling.

  • Have your healthcare provider check your feet once a year. Discuss proper footwear, and ask whether seeing a foot specialist is advised.

  • Make your home safer.

  • Remove things you can trip over (such as papers, books, clothes, and shoes) from stairs and places where you walk.

  • Remove small throw rugs or use double-sided tape to keep the rugs from slipping.

  • Have grab bars put in next to and inside the tub, and next to the toilet.

  • Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors.

As we age, it’s essential to prioritize strength training, flexibility, stress reduction, and maintenance of balance. Staying active and lowering stress levels can allow for a better quality of life and a longer life span while lowering your risk for falling.

Hope Knosher