We fall every few seconds
In fact every 13 seconds an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 20 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall. Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults. Incredible as they seem, these numbers come from the National Council on Aging, so they’re very real.
Balance is our sixth sense
You’ve probably never thought much about the importance of balance. Why should you? It’s just there, like hearing or seeing. However, as we get older, we gradually start to lose it and that’s when it becomes an issue, that’s when we start to think about the value it has in our everyday lives. Because when we begin to stumble and fall at 65+, the issues start.
How does it work?
Like vision or smell keeping ourselves straight is about interpreting the space around our bodies, and it’s directed by a specific organ. Along with our eyes and our nose, there is something called the vestibular apparatus. We don’t think much about it because it’s behind our ears, inside our head, in other words, out of sight. This labyrinth of channels inside our head contains water, and how it flows and ebbs, like gyroscope, tells our brain if we’re standing straight or we need to adjust. Keeping balance, equilibrium, is not as easy for our bodies as it seems, but this sense makes sure we make it happen.
Can we do something about it?
Let me put it another way: most humans after 45 need glasses to be able to read. Are they sick? Of course not. Are reading glasses ugly, heavy and cumbersome? Do they look like they were issued by the old soviet health system? Hardly. In fact, fashion eyeglasses for reading are all the rage and the business is booming. From Ralph Lauren to Armani, the world’s top designers fight each other to help us see reading glasses as the most normal thing in the world.
What does Ralph Lauren have to do with our falling left and right?
Plenty. Let me put it this way. The best selling fall prevention shoe on Amazon looks like an aircraft carrier. The best selling shower bench to help older people take a safe shower looks like it was designed by government bureaucrats. To say nothing of the myriad contraptions for sale to help people get in and out of couches, beds, and to get down and up from a toilet. These companies are asking us to turn our bathrooms and living rooms into the ugliest places.
Why are so many of us falling so frequently?
Just as our ability to read without glasses diminishes with age, we also lose our sense of balance. The difference is that we treat the loss of balance as a disease. And the cure we’re supposed to adopt is to turn homes and daily life into small hospitals. Obviously, the people most at risk don’t want this, who would? When they most need some help, a great looking cane, a bed assist device that is more furniture than hospital, a cool pair of shoes, they simply don’t exist. Faced with wearing a pair of aircraft carriers for shoes, most people say no. And then they fall. And then reluctantly put away their great looking shoes.
People naturally, obviously, and intuitively reject the products that currently exist, and we all live with the terrible consequences of this choice. The answer — where is Ralph Lauren and Armani when we really need them to offer an alternative to the medical equipment companies? It would do the world a whole lot of good.
If you really want learn about our sense of balance, I suggest you read the wonderful book Balance by Scott McCredie.
William J. Croft says
Qigong is well known in China and throughout the world for enhancing the flow of life energy (chi or qi); as well as keeping sensory organs healthy. Qigong practitioners and masters in their 80’s and 90’s are common.
I’m an AGNG200 student at the Erickson School of Aging, and I’m also chinese. In my culture it is important to maintain health through activity. It’s not uncommon to see older adults practicing TaiChi or Qigong or simply stretching every day, sometimes several times a day. In other cultures the ‘easy chair’ recliner and TV is the past time of aging. Even yoga would be helpful. I have a non-asian family friend who complains that they wake up sore and stiff and have trouble standing, which they take for granted as part of aging. But it does”t have to be this way. Moderate exercise, within the limits of any physical disabilities, should be part of everyone’s routine, and this will prevent many of the affects of physical aging and also help improve brain activity, maybe reducing or delaying onsets of dementia.
Still the Lucky Few says
Strength and stretching would do a great deal to help older people survive a fall. I’m not familiar with the disabling condition you mention. Sometimes balance is caused by lack of sensitivity in feet—something people with diabetes frequently have. My husband is a diabetic, and uses a cane now, after falling twice. Even so, I see him losing his balance easily, and worry about him.
I’m now 66. Several years ago, I had a problem with a-typical vestibular migraine. One of the ways it is “treated” is to hang your head over the bed and do exercises that help your body regain a sense of balance. I have fallen several times and find that the most important thing any of us can do is to learn how to fall. People stiffen up and panic. That’s the worst thing anyone can do. I believe that many seniors would like to learn a little gymnastics that can help strengthen bones and reduce the fear of falling. At the very least, many senior centers offer yoga classes. This is helpful, too.
ChangingAging (@changingaging) says
Thanks for sharing this insight. I’ve participated in fall prevention programs at my local senior center (at age 38) to understand the risks and precautions. Life is dangerous and you can’t remove the risk of falling. Knowing how to fall and what to do next can be empowering. Ultimately it boils down to the simplest of maxims – move it or lose it.