As we age and our bones gradually lose density, the risk of breaking a bone steadily increases. Hip fractures can be devastating, as we all know; but a broken wrist, arm, or leg can be an immense challenge, too. Maintaining your sense of balance is one of the best ways to lower your risk of suffering a debilitating fracture – here’s how.
When you’re young, a broken arm can be somewhat of a novelty. Everyone signs your cast; it might get you out of loading the dishes into the dishwasher; and it’s an interesting break (pun intended) from the daily routine.
But when you’re older, that same broken arm can wreak havoc with your life. Aged bones heal much more slowly than young ones. And daily activities that may already be difficult are doubly so when one arm is almost literally tied behind your back.
Americans will suffer over 2 million osteoporosis-related bone fractures this year. That figure is expected to climb to 3 million by 2025, as the population ages. About half of American women over age 50 can expect to suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture in their remaining lifetime; for men, the risk is 1 in 4.
While broken bones are always a serious problem, a hip fracture can be deadly. One in 3 women (and 1 in 6 men) who reach their 90th birthday will suffer a hip fracture at some point during their lifetime.
Statistics show that up to 20% of people who suffer a hip fracture die within a year – either due to complications from the fracture itself, or its possible side effects: blood clots, pneumonia, or infection. In addition, 75% never make a full recovery; 50% are never able to live independently again; and about 25% need to move into a nursing home.
Clearly, fracture risk is something all aging Americans need to consider – and especially those of us whose bone health is already compromised, as evidenced by a diagnosis of osteoporosis or osteopenia.
If you’re following the rules – eating a healthy diet, with sufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D; exercising regularly; avoiding alcohol and tobacco – is there anything else you can do to help prevent fractures?
Indeed there is. Bone fractures don’t usually happen while you’re sitting in your favorite easy chair reading a book. They’re often the result of a fall. That trip over a curb, slip on a throw rug, and awkward slide in a soapy bathtub can all result in a hard landing: and a spinal fracture, shattered wrist, or broken hip.
When you’re young, these slips and slides are seldom a problem; you quickly catch your balance and move on. But as you age, your balance is affected in all sorts of new ways.
Failing eyesight and changes in the inner ear related to aging can affect your sense of balance, making it more difficult to “catch” your increasingly elusive balance. Certain medications can make you dizzy, as can low blood pressure. Your feet and ankles, so important in maintaining balance, may not work as well as they used to.
It’s clear that as you age, balance is both increasingly important, and ever more difficult to maintain.
The solution? Work on your balance. Every day. Think of balance as a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.
The first and easiest thing you can do to maintain or improve your balance is simple: stand on one leg.
In the beginning, simply stand in place, next to the wall if necessary to maintain your balance, and raise one foot off the floor. See how long you can stand that way without putting your foot down.
Once you feel comfortable with that exercise, try standing on one leg, raising the other (knee bent), and moving the raised leg around in small circles. Do this several times a day – while you’re brushing your teeth, rinsing a glass in the sink, or shuffling through the mail.
Want a bigger challenge? Try it with your eyes closed. Big difference! No matter how good you’ve become standing on one leg, make sure you’re within reach of a wall the first time you do it “blind.”
If you have the time and resources, taking a class focusing on balance – e.g., Tai Chi – can help you fine-tune and strengthen your ability to remain steady on your feet.
But remember your first and most effective balance exercise: standing on one leg. Do it daily for a “leg up” on good balance!
Baldwin, R. (n.d.). Keeping your balance. Retrieved from http://www.nof.org/aboutosteoporosis/preventingfalls/keepingyourbalance
Fast facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nof.org/node/40