Cohen Medical Associates is a family medical center and research center located in Delray Beach, FL.
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Ability to Balance Linked to Longer Life

Can you stand on one leg for 10 seconds? Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach hope the answer is yes because a new study published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that an inability to do so nearly doubled the risk of death from any cause within the next decade.

It may seem simple, but it’s an important skill: In addition to this study, earlier research has linked the inability to stand on one leg to a greater risk of falls as well as earlier cognitive decline.

The Test

For the current study, researchers asked 1,702 Brazilians ages 51 to 75 to balance on one leg for 10 seconds while placing the free foot behind the standing leg, keeping their arms by their sides, and staring straight ahead. They were allowed to try three times. 

About 20 percent of the test subjects were unable to last for 10 seconds. The researchers then followed the subjects for seven years and found that those who couldn’t perform the test had an 84 percent higher risk of death from all causes. This result held true even when other factors such as age, preexisting conditions, or health risks such as weight, hypertension, diabetes, and so on were accounted for.

Study author Dr. Claudio Gil Araújo of the Exercise Medicine Clinic (CLINIMEX) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said his team’s findings could be used by patients and doctors alike to help indicate overall health and fitness levels.

“We regularly need . . . a one-legged posture: to move out of a car, to climb, or to descend a step or stair, and so on,” he said in a statement. “To not have this ability or being afraid to do so, it is likely related to loss of autonomy and, in consequence, less exercise, and the snowball starts.”

A Possible Indicator

At the same time, other experts cautioned that the study was merely observational, so the results could be affected by other factors the researchers didn’t account for, including the level of physical activity, recent falls, and medications that may affect balance.

“As one-leg standing requires good balance, linked to brain function, good muscle strength, and good blood flow, it likely integrates muscular, vascular, and brain systems, so it is a global test of future mortality risk—albeit crude,” Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine in the Institute of Cardiovascular & Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow, told CNN.

“If someone cannot do the 10 seconds and is worried, they should reflect on their own health risks,” he said.

“They could try to make positive lifestyle changes such as walking more, eating less if they realize they could do better—most underestimate the importance of lifestyle to health.”

Whether or not the study results are valid, there’s no denying that balance is crucial to maintaining good health, especially as we get older.

Risks of Falling

Although people of all ages experience falls, the risk of severe consequences rises as we get older.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 36 million people 65 and older experience a fall each year. About one in five of those falls causes a serious injury, such as a head injury or a broken bone, typically to the wrist, arm, ankle, or hip.

In one study, Ohio State researchers found that more than a third of older adults with minor head injuries end up back in the ER within 90 days.

Because older people are more likely to have impaired vision, dizziness, and other health issues, as well as a lack of the strength and the agility to find their feet once they lose their balance, they not only fall more often than younger people, but one fall leads to a cascading effect of more falls with more injuries.

  • Falls are the leading cause of death from injury among people 65 and older.
  • One-quarter of seniors who fall and fracture a hip will die within six months of their injury.
  • The risk of falls increases with age and is greater for women than for men.
  • Over half of seniors aged 80 and older fall every year. 

In addition, the rate of seniors falling appears to be increasing. 

The CDC released a report in 2019 showing that seniors are experiencing concussions and other brain injuries at unprecedented rates, leading to increased emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and deaths. The report said that one in every 45 Americans 75 and older suffered brain injuries as a result of a fall in 2019, a 76 percent spike from 2007.

Improving Balance

There are a number of steps you can take to prevent falls, including:

  • removing tripping hazards from floors
  • installing handrails and grab bars throughout the home
  • adding adequate lighting, especially on stairs 
  • having regular vision checkups

In addition, there are many ways to improve balance, depending on your level of fitness.

Strength and balance exercises can improve muscle tone and increase balance. Inexpensive balance boards, also known as wobble boards, can strengthen large muscle groups in the legs to promote stability.

Tai Chi, a gentle routine of slow-motion exercises, has been shown repeatedly to not only increase balance but to decrease dizziness, a common cause of falls. 

Other exercises that improve stability and balance include gentle yoga, bicycling, walking, swimming, and water workouts.

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