Balance & the Elderly

One of the major issues seniors often have to grapple with is balance and gait. There are various exercises that can alleviate the issue since if it is not managed well, it can result in falls. Given the weakened bones of the elderly, falling is no simple matter and can then spiral into a whole slew of other issues so prevention is – as always – the best bet. Also it’s not just those over 65 who have balance issues; a 2008 NIH estimation found that almost 15% of adult Americans had encountered a balance/dizziness problem within the previous year.

But as we age, these issues worsen. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that around a third plus of adults aged 65 years and older fall each year. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths. The elderly often report feeling dizzy or unsteady; a common cause of which is a disturbance in the inner ear.

There are quite a few different balance disorders. These include: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) which is the most common one, whereby one encounters a very brief intense vertigo feeling on moving the head. Labyrinthitis is when the inner ear is inflamed or infected; Ménière’s disease a condition that can result in vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus or a feeling of fullness in the ear.

Given all of this, community health worker Terri Khoury MSN, RN is trying to improve the situation for the elderly in her work. She noticed how vision problems and side effects from medication can cause a whole array of issues. She mentioned vision problems and side effects from medication as two additional causes along with balance of falling, citing the medication often needed to decrease high blood pressure, which can result in hypotension, or lower blood pressure, which can cause falls.

The other challenge is that sometimes when seniors fall, they may not be able to explain what happened, saying that they went straight down. “It’s usually hypotension,” Khoury explained but even worse is the fear that 35 percent of those over 65 have of falling which results in them limiting their regular daily activities as they think that will reduce their likelihood of falling. In fact though, Khoury maintains, the opposite is true as that results in muscle mass loss which causes issues with balance and increases the risk of falls.

Khoury is now working toward her doctoral degree in nursing at Regis College, and, via her research project is trying to determine if a fall assessment intervention program could be helpful to older adults through the STEADI (Stopping Elderly Accidents, Deaths and Injuries) toolkit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For this, she found 80 individuals and started the research just in time for Fall Prevention Month in November!