By LOIS KINDLE
According to the National Institute on Aging, balance problems are one of the most common reasons seniors seek medical help.
It’s an indication that one or more of your body’s systems ꟷ vestibular (the balance organ in your inner ear), your bones, muscles, joints, vision, heart, blood vessels or nerves ꟷ aren’t functioning the way they’re supposed to. Experts point to the balance organ in the inner ear as the biggest culprit.
“The ear has everything to do with balance,” said Tiffany Bryan, doctor of physical therapy with Sun Towers Rehabilitation. Certified in vestibular therapy, she works with folks to improve their balance and reduce problems related to dizziness, caused by crystals that break off from their normal positions in the inner ear and move elsewhere. These can often be repositioned through special exercises, she said. “With a doctor’s order, I can do an assessment to pinpoint weaknesses.”
Balance issues can involve vertigo, feeling faint or lightheaded, unsteadiness, dizziness or the sensation of floating, vision changes and confusion. They can also be caused by vestibular migraines or neuritis, peripheral neuropathy, Meniere’s disease and other conditions.
When you have good balance, you’re able to control your body’s positioning, whether you’re still or moving, walk without staggering and climb stairs without tripping. You can also get up from a chair or bend without falling. All of these capabilities are important factors in living independently.
The inability to do any of these things can lead to falls.
Last year, the Sun City Center Emergency Squad responded to more than 1,500 calls involving balance issues, a whopping 42 percent of its total calls.
“We frequently pick up a patient off the floor, and he or she declines being taken to the hospital,” said Robin Watt, assistant chief of public relations. “In Hillsborough County, in 2017 (the most recent year for complete data), there was a total of 929 hospitalizations that were caused by falls. Of those, 148 were fatal for seniors over age 65.”
This doesn’t mean balance issues are inevitable.
“The single best way to reduce your chances of falling is to stay active,” said Watt, an EMT and former falls prevention coordinator. “Regardless of whether you walk, line dance, practice yoga, play golf or engage in water aerobics, staying active helps you maintain your balance. Almost any activity that gets you up and moving is good.
“As an analogy, think of your body like you do your vehicle. Consider what happens if you put your car on blocks and don’t use it. It rusts out and won’t run.
“The more sedentary you are, the less you’ll be able to maintain your balance,” she continued. “Your body is meant to move. Find an activity you like, one that you look forward to doing, and you are more likely to stick with it.”
Tai chi, through targeting leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and reflexes, has been proven to be highly effective in helping people maintain their balance.
“It helps us balance ourselves when we are upright and stabilizes us when we change positions,” said Jennifer Lenoir, certified occupational therapist and Tai Chi instructor. “In Tai Chi, we slowly isolate each muscle group, which helps the brain facilitate the execution of a movement. This is very important for good balance, especially as we age.”
Her free, modified Tai Chi class is open to the public every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at Sun Towers.
Another important issue for maintaining balance for many seniors is staying hydrated, particularly in the summer heat. Severe dehydration can cause dizziness and fainting, which lead to falls.
“I would guess that the vast majority of residents in our senior community are dehydrated,” Watt said. “Unless you’re on a fluid-restricted diet, it’s important to drink five to seven glasses of fluids daily to stay adequately hydrated. Water, milk, juice, Gatorade, watermelon, even Jell-O, all count towards your fluid intake.”
For more information, call Bryan or Lenoir at Sun Towers Rehabilitation, 813-634-3324 or Watt or Linda Eargle at the Sun City Center Emergency Squad, 813-633-1411.