Falls are the leading cause of death from injury among seniors, and the risk increases with age. Fully one third of those over age 65 fall each year, and many suffer severe or even fatal injuries.
Researchers at the Mobility and Brain Function Program at Harvard Medical School’s Institute for Aging Research are trying to understand what causes older adults to fall, which will hopefully lead to development of preventive measures. They have found a direct correlation between balance and reduction of fall risk in older adults.
In a recent article, Dr. Brad Manor, the program’s director, stated that as we grow older, our ability to efficiently perform multiple tasks at the same time start to slowly deteriorate. Even the simplest of simultaneous activities, such as walking and talking, can disrupt our balance and put us at risk for a serious fall-related injury.
Mobility, the researchers conclude, is both physical and mental. Physically, mobility depends on the ability of your muscles and reflexes to help us maintain balance. The mental part relies on your ability to pay attention to the world around you, your short-term memory of where your legs and feet are located related to the ground, and your ability to make the correct decision to change your movements when needed, such as when a sidewalk is wet or covered with snow.
In an effort to find ways to prevent falls by seniors, researchers at the Center have started looking at exercises that target both the physical and mental fundamentals in mobility. They found that the purposeful movements and fluid repetitious motions in Tai Chi not only boost muscle function but also stimulate the mental functions that make mobility easier. Yoga and dance also have great mind-body interactions and work well to improve balance in older adults. While walking on a treadmill, riding a bike or strength training are all beneficial exercises, they were found to not have the balance component necessary to most effectively prevent falls.
Older adults who fall often get injured, then they become less active. This chain of events causes further balance deterioration and greater risk of suffering another fall. It’s never too late or too early to start exercises to help improve balance and prevent the debilitating results that can come with a balance-related injury later. Any balance-based exercise should be done in a group or with a partner for safety reasons and check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise.
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