- A new study found that 20% of participants were unable to perform a 10-second single-leg balance test.
- Researchers suggest balance may be a stronger predictor of our overall health than ever before, and hope to incorporate balance testing into regular doctor visits.
- If you’re having balance issues, experts suggest working with your healthcare provider to determine the cause of your balance issues.
Have you ever tested your balance during a routine physical exam? A new study suggests it might be worth it. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicineinvestigated whether doing a 10-second stand on one leg could be an overall indicator of health, and now scientists suggest adding this test to your regular doctor visits.
Researchers examined 1,702 people between the ages of 51 and 75 between 2008 and 2020 on their ability to perform a 10-second one-legged position. Participants were asked to stand on one leg, with the free leg resting on the back of the standing leg and the arms at their sides. They had three chances to complete the balance task.
About 20 percent of participants were unable to complete the balance, and the number of those unable to balance increased with age. The study found that 5% of participants between 51 and 55 failed, 8% of those between 56 and 60 failed, 18% of those between 61 and 65 failed, about 37% of those between 66 and 70 years. years failed, and 54% of those between 71 and 75 failed. Overall, those who failed the test tended to have higher body weight, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes.
After adjusting for age, sex and existing health conditions, scientists estimated that those who could not stand on one leg for 10 seconds were associated with an 84% increased risk of death during of the next seven years. Factors such as recent falls, current physical activity regimen, diet, smoking or medication use were not considered. Researchers suggest adding this test to regular physical health exams.
What the experts want to point out from this study is that achieving a 10-second balance won’t prevent heart disease, diabetes, or other illnesses. The study itself focused on “all-cause mortality,” which can be linked to many different things.
In this study, those who were able to perform the 10-second one-legged position had a decreased risk of falling, so an overall lower risk of mortality, explains Robert Parisien, MDorthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mount Sinai.
But adding the test to your exam room is probably a good idea. Arturo Miguel, physiotherapist, a physiotherapist says it’s something he’d like to see doctors include in their annual physicals. “It takes 10 seconds, it’s easy to spot when a person loses their balance and it’s pretty safe,” he says.
Right now, it’s not something that doctors usually check during your annual visit. “Most often it is the patient who brings [balance] rather than the doctor who asks for it,” says James Gladstone, MD, head of sports medicine at Mount Sinai. He encourages patients who have balance issues to talk to their doctor about it, as it will open up the question of why there are balance issues in the first place. “The most critical thing is to try to figure out why you have a loss of balance and then you can treat it in any way you can.”
But, it is very possible that a person does not even feel that they are unbalanced, warns Miguel. He suggests keeping an eye out for things like feeling like you’re moving when you’re not moving, bumping into things regularly, or needing to hold on to things when you’re moving.
Why is balance so important for overall health?
If someone is having difficulty with their balance, it may be due to a weakness associated with an underlying illness, injury or inactivity, says Dr. Gladstone. It may be related to a problem with muscle strength and coordination resulting from nerve damage in the spine or legs. Other balance-related issues can stem from peripheral neuropathy, in which you lose sensation or experience weakness or pain in your hands and feet. But, it could also be a problem with your ears or something going on in your head or brain, he says.
But the real concern of most health experts when it comes to balance issues is that a lack of balance means you’re more prone to falls or injury, Dr. Gladstone says. “As you age, your bones become more fragile, so if you fall you have a higher risk of fracture,” he says.
Falls are the second leading cause of accidental death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and adults over 60 experience the highest number of falls. In addition to the physical implications of falls, Miguel adds that falls can lead to long hospital stays, loss of insurance and even increase the risk of further injury.
How to improve your balance
The key to improving balance problems is to first determine what is causing them. Then you can plan with your healthcare provider how best to manage your concerns, says Dr. Parisien.
If there’s a problem with bone density, your doctor may suggest increasing your calcium or vitamin D intake in addition to performing certain exercises, he says. If you have vestibular problems, related to the inner ear, there are also many exercises that improve balance you can try with a physical therapist, says Dr. Gladstone.
And problems related to muscle problems can be treated by using balance exercises to build stability and strength. Miguel suggests focusing on maintaining good leg strength through exercise and staying active every day.
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