Exercise, Diet Can Help Elderly Maintain Balance

Dorian Martin Health Guide

    Last year, my dad had several falls. At 80-plus years of age, that’s worrisome since it’s very easy for older folks to break a hip. Falls at Dad’s age often lead to a decline in health, so I want to encourage Dad to do everything possible to maintain his balance.

    That’s why I found it interesting to learn how interrelated our general care (including diet and exercise) is in helping elderly people maintain their balance. For instance, a new study by Dr. Farzaneh Sorond of Brigham and Women’s Health Hospital, Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research and Harvard Medical School found that high blood pressure can alter the flow of blood in the brain, which may cause the elderly to fall. The research team studied 419 men and women over the age of 65. These subjects took part in walking speed monitoring and ultrasound testing to gauge brain blood flow.  The researchers found that seniors who were among the 20 percent of study participants with the smallest blood flow changes in the brain due to high blood pressure were 70 percent more likely to fall; they fell approximately 1.5 times per year. Those seniors who were in the 20 percent with the largest brain blood flow changes fell on average less than once a year.

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    “Our findings suggest there could be a new strategy for preventing falls, such as daily exercise and treatments for high blood pressure, since blood pressure affects blood flow in the brain and may cause falls,” Sorond said, adding, “At age 60, 85 percent of people have a normal walking ability. However, by age 85, only 18 percent of seniors can walk normally.”

    The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging website noted that the prevention of falls (depending on causes and risk factors) may include exercise and nutritional or vitamin supplementation. Therefore, I really encourage Dad to follow a DASH diet as one way to control his blood pressure. That diet plan means lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and low-fat dairy products while reducing total and saturated fat intake.

    The good news is that, according to The Elder-gym website, balance can be improved with training. Suggested safety guidelines for performing these exercises include:

    • Maintain good posture with your weight over your ankles.
    • Avoid fast movements, such as quick turns or changes in position.
    • Have a chair available to hold on while doing standing exercises. Hold on using a finger, a hand or two hands.
    • Always get up slowly when rising from a chair.
    • Keep your eyes open when exercising or standing at your chair.
    • If taking medications, ask your doctor if there are any side effects which may cause light-headedness or decreased balance. (In my dad’s case, it was a pain medication that he was taking for his bad back that triggered his loss of balance.)

    So what type of exercise can elderly do to increase their balance? The Elder-gym website has videos displaying many exercises such as heel to toe, grapevine, and staggering stance. The Mayo Clinic also suggests several, including:

    • Weight shifts in which the person shifts the weight to one leg and holds the position for as long as possible. Then repeat the exercise using the other leg.
    • Single leg balances which cause you to left one leg off the floor and bend it back at the knee, and then hold the position for 30 seconds. After returning to the starting position, try this exercise with the alternate leg.
    • Bicep curls for balance, which call for holding a dumbbell in one hand, doing a bicep curl, and then raising the opposite leg. Repeat on the other side.

    It’s good to know that the elderly can be proactive through exercise and diet in improving their balance and, thus, avoiding falls. Staying active and eating healthily can make a difference at any age.

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Published On: May 26, 2010