Senior citizens cannot afford to lose their balance.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that falls are the leading cause of injury death and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma for seniors 65 and older. And the death rates from falls among older men and women have risen sharply during the past decade, the CDC reports.
Based on these statistics, the need for balance training remains as critical as ever. The New York Times published a recent article on the importance of this type of exercise program, which aims to help seniors maintain a center of gravity while moving in various directions to improve strength and flexibility on both sides of the body.
“With falls, seniors lose confidence in the ability to move,” says physical therapist Dinah Hayes, director of therapy services at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield. “In essence, they’re not only dealing with the fallout from falls, they also feel less comfortable. Then, with decreasing activities, it hurts muscle strength and you put yourself at risk for more falls down the road.”
The process of determining the proper balance training regimen starts with a visit to the physician’s office. From there, the doctor will likely recommended a visit to a specialist, who can create a personalized training program for the patient.
“Balance problems can be subjective and difficult to assess because each case is so different,” says Missy Loder, physical therapist at St. Luke’s Hospital. “There are hundreds of balance exercises, but no one needs to do all of them. Every patient does a different set of exercises.”
Specialists also review several areas, including medication, strength level, medical history, and range of mobility, before tailoring any balance training program, Hayes explains.
At St. Luke’s, physical therapists employ vestibular rehabilitation therapy for patients who complain about dizziness. This therapy is an exercise program designed to promote central nervous system compensation for inner ear deficits like dizziness and vertigo. Physical therapists not only assess strength and flexibility, but also balance and sensory systems.
“Balance problems and dizziness are two common problems that often go hand in hand,” Hayes says.
With balance and vestibular training, Hayes and Loder recommend that any exercises take place in the presence of a health care professional—at the hospital, gym, or inside a dwelling. Patients usually take six to 12 months of training, but they are encouraged to continue exercises on a regular basis after their training ends.
In addition, other steps that seniors can take to improve balance include proper nutrition, hearing and vision testing, wearing non-slip tennis shoes, watching alcohol intake, and using a properly fitted walking device.
“And there are lots of ways to make your home safer,” Hayes says. “Make sure you have adequate lighting, especially in the pathway from the bedroom to the bathroom. Also, use a non-skid bath mat and remove any clutter from your home.”