When I treat older patients who have taken a recent fall, they often say the same thing: “I never thought this would happen to me.” Doctors and other health professionals have done a good job of informing the public about the dangers that balance problems present to older adults. Equally important, however, is providing solutions so patients can better manage balance problems and avoid falls in the first place.
What Causes Balance Problems?
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that over one-third of adults ages 65 years and older fall each year. This is worrisome because falls are a leading cause of fractures, especially to the hips and legs. One bad fall can rob an otherwise healthy individual of his or her mobility, creating problems for years to come. Falls are also the leading cause of injury deaths for older adults.
There are various reasons why so many falls occur. As you age, you are more likely to be diagnosed with conditions that cause balance problems. Here are some of the most common health problems that effect balance:
1) Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – More likely to occur in people over 60, BPPV causes a brief, but intense spinning sensation when you move your head. The vertigo is most pronounced when you get out of bed or tilt your head to look up. This is caused by calcium stones in the inner ear, which may be the result of an infection, injury or aging.
2) Labyrinthitis – This inflammation of the inner ear results in dizziness and loss of balance. It affects the labyrinth, or the organ that controls balance.
3) Ménière’s Disease – While the cause is unknown, Ménière’s can occur at any age. It is a balance disorder resulting in vertigo, intermittent hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and a feeling of fullness in the ears.
4) Medication – Blood pressure medications are often the source of balance problems. A class of drugs known as “ototoxic” have the side effect of damaging the inner ear, therefore effecting balance.
5) Stroke – This disease of the circulatory system not only causes falls in some cases, but can also be the source of balance problems.
Healthy Solutions for Better Balance
How can you prevent becoming part of the 33 percent of seniors who report falls? If you have one of the conditions described above or take medications that cause balance problems, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. If at anytime you have yourself experiencing trouble with balance I highly recommend you see your doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis.
Staying healthy is the key to better balance. Upper respiratory infections and viruses can cause labyrinthitis, so do not wait before seeking help.
Lifestyle can be a factor and stress, smoking, fatigue, and drinking alcohol excessively increase your risk for labyrinthitis. Smoking is definitely a high risk factor for stroke, so quitting is essential. Other causes of stroke, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, must be treated to avoid balance problems. Be sure to exercise for weight control and monitor your sodium intake, as well.
When it comes to Meniere’s disease, fluid imbalance in the inner ear can be improved by cutting down on salt. You can also avoid caffeine and alcohol, which cause dehydration, or loss of fluid. If you have BPPV, consult an otolaryngologist, a doctor specially trained to dislodge the calcium deposits in the inner ear by manipulating the head through various positions.
If you think your prescription medicines are the cause of balance problems, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to change your treatment or alter your dosage. With some ototoxic drugs, the inner ear will go back to normal after you stop taking them; with others, some damage may be permanent. Your doctor can best find a solution for your individual needs.
Simply being aware of your body and on the lookout for balance problems is the first step in protecting yourself. Fortunately, most falls are highly preventable. If you address issues with balance early on, you will be less likely to suffer from injury, and more likely to stay active as you age.