Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
No one ever said why Humpty fell off the wall. If he’d managed to stay up there, he would have been OK. That’s the way it is with older people with thin bones. Osteoporosis doesn’t make people fall but it makes them break when they do. The real question is why they fall.
Why do older people fall down?
Falling is a risk of age because balance, strength, flexibility and speed decline over time. Even if you have no problems with balance it is worth understanding how balance works – how you maintain an upright posture and adjust to changes in the terrain under your feet, and how you manage to catch yourself and not fall as your foot slips on an icy path. The good news is that “use it or lose it” applies to balance, strength, flexibility and speed. You have some say in their preservation.
The systems that create balance
Your sense of balance comes from the integration of messages from muscles and joints, eyes and ears. Try experimenting and you’ll feel how these sensations contribute to balance. First, stand on one leg. Then try doing it with your eyes closed. Then try doing it after spinning around in a circle, and disturbing the fluid in the inner ear. With each maneuver, you subtract some of the sensory input to your brain and make it harder to control the muscle strength and tone needed to keep you upright. Fortunately, we don’t have to “think” about the actions that keep us balanced. They happen automatically.
What happens when the balance systems go awry?
When some part of the entire balance system goes awry, you feel “dizzy” or “lightheaded” or “off” or “tipsy.” The doctor who hears your complaint will ask you questions related to all the components of the balance system, and to all the medical conditions that can disrupt your eyes and ears, your peripheral nerves, your spinal cord, or your brain. He or she may order hearing tests or brain scans, blood tests or electroencephalograms. Patience, careful observation of symptoms, and systematic ruling out of problems is the best approach.
A sense of spinning dizziness, called vertigo, makes balance almost impossible. Vertigo is most frequently the result of an inner ear problem Three semicircular canals deep in each ear lie at right angles to each other and are filled with fluid that moves when you move your head. The fluid stimulates nerves that add information to the balance system. Viruses can affect the ear and produce profound vertigo with even tiny head movements. Some tumors of the nerve to the ear (acoustic neuromas) affect balance and hearing. A benign condition called Meniere’s disease causes episodes of hearing loss and vertigo. Though acute ear problems are sometimes at fault, very often dizziness that comes from the ears is a result of disuse of the inner ear canals. Ears that are unaccustomed to change in position because body movement has become limited and slow no longer cope well with rolling over in bed or turning the head quickly, and such routine activities can make the room spin. This is called benign positional vertigo and the treatment consists of exercises of the head and neck to re-accustom the semicircular canals to movement.
Muscle and joint receptors keep track of the body in three dimensions
Tiny receptors in the muscles and the joints perceive gravitational stress and muscle tension and movement. These receptors tell the brain where the body is and how much muscle tension is needed to hold you up and to move the way you intend to move. Balance suffers when nerves don’t function properly (neuropathies) because of diabetes, kidney disease, vitamin deficiencies, medications, exposure to toxic substances, or a variety of esoteric blood and autoimmune diseases. Balance also suffers when pain messages from joints and muscles override the compensatory adjustments that have to be made quickly to avert a fall. Arthritic diseases of the spine, spinal tumors, or diseases that affect the peripheral nerves can disrupt the pathways in the spinal cord that carry the messages from the nerves to the brain.
Vision: an important component of the balance system
Visual input contributes a lot to the brain’s interpretation of the world and to where the body is in three dimensional space. Darkness, by removing visual clues, sometimes uncovers balance troubles before they are apparent in good light. Of course, people who have never had vision have developed balance systems that function perfectly well without visual input and sighted people who lose vision eventually adapt their balance to its lack.
Brain: coordinating the input and determining the output
The brain takes incoming sensory information and converts it to a sense of where the body is in space. It also sends messages back down the spinal cord and out over the motor nerves to the muscles to stimulate them to contract and relax in just the amounts necessary the body where you want it. Interference with these finely tuned functions can cause feelings of dizziness and imbalance that are harder to describe than the vertigo caused by ear problems. These sensations are termed central imbalance and can come from strokes, side effects from medicines, or a fall in blood pressure on standing up too rapidly. Less common causes are a variety of degenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, and cerebellar degeneration.
Keep you balance and you won’t have to retrieve it later
Even if you are young, practicing balance activities that challenge you and maintaining muscle strength, quickness and range of motion are useful habits that serve you well in youth as well as in older age. If you do slip, you will have the best balance possible and the strength required to get your feet back underneath you. Choices abound that give you opportunities to stimulate your balance circuits. Put your pants and socks on while standing. While you brush your teeth! where you can grab onto something if necessary, practice one-footed standing with eyes open, then closed. Do regular head rolling exercises, gently and slowly at first, to get those semicircular canals used to some movement or take dance lessons and get back to spinning movements. Make yourself move briskly at all times to keep speed in your repertoire. Squat completely and rise as often as possible when only bending is required. Try one-footed squats. Use the stairs instead of elevators. Balance on your toes, and on your heels. Walk an imaginary tightrope, frontward and backward. And if you still ride a bike or ski or dance or skate or run, keep it up. Unlike Humpty Dumpy, you’ll have a better chance of staying up on the wall.