Slow down, consider balance to reduce senior fall risk

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Jennifer Redmond

Every 13 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall-related injury.

Of these, 25% result in death.

Read that again.

We can reduce fall risk greatly by making some simple changes to our daily activities. Slow down and take your time; nothing is too important that we need to rush.

Balance is vital to normal everyday life activities such as getting out of a chair and walking, bending over to out your shoes on, washing your hair, driving your car, or going grocery shopping. Just about everything you do in your daily life, whether for work or leisure, requires balance control, and most of the time you don't have to think about it.

If balance problems develop, though, they can cause profound disruptions in your daily life. In addition to increased risk for falls, balance disorders can shorten your attention span, disrupt normal sleep patterns, and cause excessive fatigue.

Ability to maintain balance is a complex process that depends on three major components: 1. your sensory systems for accurate information about your body's position relative to your environment; 2. your brain's ability to process this information; and 3. your muscles and joints for coordinating the movements required to maintain balance.

The sensory systems include your sense of touch, your vision and your inner ear motion sensors. For example, we rely on our feet and joints to tell us the surface we are standing on is uneven or moving. We rely on our eyes to tell us if the environment around us is moving or still. We rely on our inner ears to tell us if we are upright or leaning, standing still or moving.

Is a loss of balance control an inevitable consequence of aging? No. The natural aging process produces changes in our bodies as we grow older, but these changes do not necessarily result in a loss of balance control or mobility.

Healthy seniors are quite able to perform daily life activities normally with few physical limitations. In fact, recent studies have indicated that elderly "fallers" are different from their healthy, age-matched counterparts.

Dizziness among older adults can also be caused by a collection of subtle degenerative or infectious processes, or injuries that, in combination, result in a balance problem.

Some individuals experiencing balance problems have an obvious medical diagnosis such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, dementia, or even a stroke that are the primary sources of the problem.

In other individuals with balance difficulties, the cause can even be subtle undetected forms of these diseases. However, diseases are not the only reason our senses and movements might be compromised.

A history of injuries, such as concussions, ear infections, or serious sprains or fractures, may contribute to a loss of balance control over time. In addition, various combinations of medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, can be detrimental to our senses or brain and cause either temporary or permanent damage.

Jennifer Redmond is the family care coordinator for Senior Helpers of Hilton Head Island. jredmond@seniorhelpers.com.

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