Falls are the leading cause of injury in people 65 and older. One-third of older adults fall each year, and those falls sometimes cause serious injury. The consequences of falls can be substantial, resulting in fractures, head injuries, loss of independence and a decrease in active lifestyle.
Our sense of balance is a key component to preventing falls. Balance actually is a combination of input from three body systems to our brains: vision; muscles, joints and sensation; and inner ear.
Sometimes our sense of balance is compromised, so we have difficulty moving, such as when we:
• Are unsteady when standing with our eyes closed or when walking in the dark
• Find it difficult to navigate uneven ground or changes in surface
• Walk slowly or unsteadily
• Veer from side to side when walking
• Lose balance when doing two things at the same time, such as walking while talking or walking while carrying a small sack of groceries
• Have a history of falls or near falls
If you’re concerned about your sense of balance, you can take action. Perhaps you need to have your vision checked to see if a change in your eyesight is contributing to your unsteadiness. Always remember to wear supportive shoes and use a cane or a walker if you need one. Check with your physician or pharmacist to determine whether any of the medications you are taking include dizziness as a side effect. And do a safety check of your house, taking note of any hazards and remembering to keep a night light on.
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Most importantly, exercise and keep moving. Don’t sit for long periods of time. Stand up and move around, even if it’s in your home. Movement and exercise are important to maintaining strength and balance.
Exercise is one of the most important ways to improve blood flow to your brain and nervous system, and exercises that improve balance and coordination, such as tai chi, can reduce your fall risk.
Tai chi is a self-paced system of gentle exercises. It is a series of postures and movements that flow in a slow, graceful manner. It originated in China in the 17th century and is now popular worldwide.
Tai chi emphasizes technique over strength. The movements are coordinated with breathing to achieve a sense of inner calm. It is considered “mediation in motion.”
Most forms are gentle and suitable for everyone, regardless of our age or physical ability. Because tai chi is low-impact, it may be especially suitable for older adults who don’t exercise otherwise. It is inexpensive and does not require equipment. It can be performed indoors or out, either alone or in a group.
Tai chi programs show positive results in improving health — especially in improving balance and reducing falls among the elderly. Research has shown that people who did six months of tai chi had 52 percent fewer falls than those who did not. Tai chi also can help reduce joint pain, decrease stiffness and fatigue, and improve function, muscle strength and flexibility. It is safe for people with arthritis.
To achieve the greatest health benefits from tai chi, it needs to be practiced regularly. Benefits can be achieved from 12 weeks of tai chi classes. More benefits can be achieved if it is practiced for a long period and regularly as part of your everyday routine.
— Adrineh Mehdikhani, PT, MBA, is a physical therapist and tai chi instructor at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. She can be reached at Adrineh.Mehdikhani@lmh.org.