Balance Problems Linked to 152,000 Deaths in U.S. Annually

Infographic about balance disorders

Infographic: Garyfallia Pagonis, courtesy of Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

Each year, almost 3 million seniors go to the emergency room with fall-related injuries. Many of these injuries are fatal and many more lead to disability. "The Complex Family Dynamics of Fall Prevention" in the September 2016 issue of Caring Right at Home looked at the various causes of falls in older adults, which include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Dementia
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • The side effects of medications
  • Poor circulation
  • Vestibular dysfunction (balance disorders)

The final item on that list is receiving more attention as our population ages. Recently, researchers from Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital in Boston, noted that vestibular dysfunction might even be considered as the third-most common cause of death among Americans, behind heart disease and cancer, linked with 152,000 American deaths each year!

Our vestibular system is made up of tiny semicircular canals in our inner ears that help us perceive motion, balance, and a sense of where we are in relationship to our surroundings (spatial orientation). Vestibular dysfunction reduces our ability to be safe as we move through our environment. In some cases, patients with a vestibular disorder experience dizziness or vertigo. The Mass. Eye and Ear team reports that more than half of us will seek help from a doctor for these symptoms at some point in our lives. However, in most cases, a decrease in the sense of balance and spatial orientation develops over time—so gradually that a person doesn't notice the problem.

And they probably do have a problem, if they are older. It's important to know that vestibular dysfunction increases with age. The Mass. Eye and Ear team published a study in Frontiers in Neurology examining the vestibular threshold in people of various ages. (The "vestibular threshold" means the smallest amount of motion that a person can perceive.) Said senior author Daniel M. Merfeld, Ph.D., "In our study, vestibular decline was clear above the age of 40." His team reported that the problem doubles every 10 years after the age of 40.

Merfeld, who is director of the Jenks Vestibular Physiology Laboratory at Mass. Eye and Ear and a professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, warned, "Increased thresholds correlate strongly with poorer balance test results, and we know from previous studies that those who have poorer balance have much higher odds of falling."

What can we do to lower the risk of balance-related falls?

If you are worried that an older loved one's sense of balance is impaired, it's time for a conversation. (A poll associated with the Caring Right at Home article mentioned above found that more than half of our readers have already started the conversation about falls, and have taken steps to lower their loved one's risk—but another 24 percent say their loved one resists discussing that topic.) You might try using the Mass. Eye and Ear study as a starting point to bring up the seriousness of the problem and to assure your loved one they are not alone. It also might help overcome your loved one's skepticism—many seniors think, "I don't notice any problem with my balance, so surely I don't have a problem."

Some balance problems can be improved with surgery or other medical treatment, and new therapies are on the horizon. (The Vestibular Disorders Association offers information about these treatments.) And almost all seniors can benefit from balance training, which might include specialized classes, physical therapy, tai chi and other exercises. The National Institute on Aging offers a set of balance-building exercises. Ask the doctor before beginning an exercise program.

People who are aware that they have vestibular dysfunction also can take preventive steps to avoid falls. Install sturdy handrails on stairs. Improve lighting throughout the house. Choose appropriate footwear. Have an annual eye exam to keep the glasses prescription up to date. Don't drink too much alcohol. Use a cane or walker correctly. If your loved one uses in-home care, remind the caregiver to remove clutter than could trip up your loved one. The Mass. Eye and Ear study also is a reminder that if you are older than 40—as many family caregivers are—all these home safety precautions could help you avoid a fall, as well!

Give yourself a fall prevention checkup!

With all the things to remember, fall protection might seem like a daunting goal. To help you take steps to lower the risk, download a free, easy-to-use Fall Prevention Guide, created by Right at Home with Dr. Rein Tideiksaar, a leading expert on fall prevention for the elderly.

Fall Prevention Guide cover

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.