When we’re younger, we take our ability to balance for granted. For seniors, balance issues like dizziness or vertigo can go from a minor annoyance to a serious risk to their health and safety.
Recognizing what causes balance issues in seniors and treating those issues and doing exercises to improve strength and balance can ensure that seniors can avoid falls and other injuries and maintain their independence.
Recognizing Balance Problems in Seniors
Balance problems in seniors can take many forms. Seniors may stagger when walking or teeter or fall when trying to stand. They might also experience other symptoms, such as:
- Dizziness or vertigo (a spinning sensation)
- Falling or feeling as if they are going to fall
- Lightheadedness, faintness or a floating sensation
- Blurred vision
- Confusion or disorientation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in heart rate and blood pressure
- Fear, anxiety or panic
Symptoms may come and go, or they may last for a long time. Because of their sporadic nature, this can make it hard to identify these balance problems. Many seniors feel self-conscious about these issues and may not tell caregivers or take the time to visit their doctor. If left untreated, balance issues can lead to fatigue and depression.
What Causes Balance Issues in Seniors?
One of the challenges of balance issues in seniors is that there can be many causes. The following are common causes, though a health care provider should make any diagnosis:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV): One of the most common balance disorders is BPPV, an inner ear disturbance that can cause intense vertigo when moving your head. Even something as simple as rolling over in bed can trigger an attack.
- Ménière’s disease: This is another common inner ear condition. People with the disease often describe a “full” feeling in the ear. It can cause vertigo, ringing in the ears and sporadic hearing loss.
- Labyrinthitis: Balance problems can be caused when the inner ear becomes infected and inflamed. It is often linked to the flu.
- Ramsay Hunt syndrome: Older adults are often more prone to the shingles virus. Ramsay Hunt syndrome occurs when the virus affects the facial nerves near the ear. It can be accompanied by ear pain and hearing loss.
Certain chronic conditions like the following can also result in balance problems due to loss of vision, cognitive decline or mobility loss:
- Eye problems
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Heart problems
- Even if the condition itself isn’t contributing to a senior’s balance issues, medications taken to treat these conditions may be a contributing factor.
Balance-Related Risks to Seniors
Another serious issue related to balance problems in senior citizens is the risk of falls. Falls are the leading cause of injury in adults age 65 years or older and can result in a drastic decrease in independence and reduced quality of life. Falls are often caused by extrinsic risk factors like loose stairs, slippery surfaces, frayed or loose rugs, and a lack of adequate lighting, or intrinsic risk factors like vertigo and other balance disorders.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four people age 65 and older will fall and falling once doubles your chances of falling again. A fall may seem minor for most of us and not result in any serious harm. But because older adults lose bone density as they age, falls can lead to wrist, arm, ankle and hip fractures, and head injuries. These can be very serious, especially if the senior takes certain medicines like blood thinners.
Many people who fall, even if they’re not injured, become afraid of falling. This may cause them to be less active, which contributes to further balance problems. Without regular exercise, seniors become weaker and more susceptible to falls.
Treatments and Exercises
Depending on the cause of the balance problems, there are ways to treat seniors. These may involve treating fluid imbalances in the inner ear, medications to treat inflammation or adjusting current medications. First and foremost, the most important treatment needs to be exercise for seniors to improve their strength and balance.
Exercises should be designed by a doctor or physical therapist to meet each senior’s unique needs and avoid the risk of falling or injury. These are some of the most common exercises that are recommended:
- Sit to stand: Sit upright in the middle of a chair. Place hands on opposite shoulders with arms crossed in front of your chest. With feet flat on the floor and a straight back, rise to a full standing position and then sit back down again.
- Heel-to-toe: While standing, position the heel of one foot just in front of the toes of the other foot until they are almost touching. Focus on a spot in front of you and walk slowly in a line.
- Weight shifts: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your weight equally distributed on both legs. Shift your weight to your right side, then lift your left foot off the floor. Hold the position as long as you can maintain good form, up to 30 seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
- Single-leg balance: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your weight equally distributed on both legs. Place your hands on your hips, lift one leg off the floor and bend it back at the knee. Hold the position as long as you can maintain good form, up to 30 seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
The most important first step for seniors and their caregivers is to recognize potential problems and be willing to deal with them. By taking steps to treat underlying issues and exercising, seniors can reduce their risk of falling or injury and build greater strength, balance and self-confidence.