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Balancing Act

Unsteady on your feet? A primary care doctor weighs in on next steps

Disorientation. Disequilibrium. Vertigo. There are a dizzying number of issues and diagnoses associated with balance. According to the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation, one in three seniors report problems with walking or keeping their balance every year. And since falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries among American seniors, it’s an issue that should not be ignored. 

“As we get older, many of us lose strength in our extremities,” explains Dr. Chase Yonce, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated primary care doctor. “This can make walking and other complex activities more difficult, increasing a person’s chance of falling.” Risk for inner ear disturbances and vertigo—which produces a spinning sensation, among other symptoms—increases with age. Plus, “Mixing certain medications or taking more than prescribed can make you susceptible to dizziness,” notes Dr. Yonce.

So how can you stay sure-footed? First, says Dr. Yonce, never dismiss a warning sign that your strength is declining. Perhaps you can’t perform an exercise you used to ace or you have difficulty changing positions. “You may be referred to a physical therapist, who can help you improve muscle imbalances, greatly reducing your risk for falls,” says Dr. Yonce. 

Next, stay active. “Regular physical activity is key to combatting atrophy and overall muscle weakness,” says Dr. Yonce (see sidebar for tips). Finally, maintain routine vision and hearing screenings, as changes to either sense can be a red flag for balance problems, and be sure to take medications only as directed.

Dizziness can be a side effect of low blood pressure and certain chronic conditions, so visit your primary care doctor immediately if you experience severe dizziness, light-headedness or vertigo, says Dr. Yonce.

“Lab work and a complete physical exam may be necessary, or you may be referred to a specialist like a neurologist for further testing or treatment.” Though unnerving, balance issues are often treatable, if not entirely reversible. —Alex Keith

Work it Out! 

Regular exercise is as beneficial for your balance as it is for your heart. To build and maintain healthy muscle tissue, Dr. Yonce recommends daily walking or biking along with resistance training with light weights or bands a few days a week. Here, find three balance-boosting exercises to add to your regimen.

  • Squats. Lower-body exercises help support a strong, even stride, and squats are among the most effective moves to target your lower half. Squats—either with just your body weight or with light added weights—work to strengthen large muscle groups like your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves, as well as smaller stabilizer muscles throughout your legs and ankles. 
  • Plank. Core muscles located in your midsection help support and stabilize your body nearly every time it moves. One of the most effective exercises to work your core is plank, including forearm plank and side plank. 
  • Yoga or Tai chi. Studies have shown that both of these low-impact exercises are uniquely suited to boost balance and minimize a person’s risk for falls. The Lowcountry and Waring Senior Centers offer both classes, currently in virtual format due to COVID-19. 

Balance: By the Numbers

  • – Annually, roughly 8 million Americans visit their doctor for balance disorders. -National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
  • – Each year, 1/3 of all seniors and more than 50% of Americans age 75 and older fall. –American Geriatrics Society 
  • – Roughly 30% of people ages 65 and older have trouble walking three city blocks or climbing a flight of stairs. –American Family Physician

NEW RESEARCH: Say Cheese!

Feeling down? Here’s a quick tip to cheer up

You know the adage “fake it ‘til you make it.” Well, results from a 2020 study first published in Experimental Psychology show that may indeed be the case when it comes to smiling. Researchers from the University of South Australia found that just flexing your grin muscles can have a real effect on your mood. For the study, 120 participants held a pen between their teeth, covertly activating the facial muscles that are used to smile. Researchers measured a distinct increase in positive emotions among participants after the simple exercise when compared with before. They explain that smiling—whether real or forced—has the power to activate the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain, which is in charge of releasing neurotransmitters that boost mood. So after you work your body out with exercise, give your face a turn! Smiling is a simple exercise that may yield science-backed mental health perks.  

Photographs by (beach) StudioByTheSea/SHUTTERSTOCK, (plank) Prostock-studio/shutterstock, (smiling man) by Monkey Business Images/SHUTTERSTOCK

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