Most of the time we barely give a moment’s thought to the ease with which we keep our bodies upright, balanced on just our feet. But with age, many health problems start to disrupt the systems that control our balance and as a result the chance of falling steadily increases.
By the age of 65, we have a one in three risk of falling each year and by 85 this has risen to a 50 per cent risk of a fall. Falls in later life can have nasty consequences, from broken hips to a fractured skull and may cause permanent disability, so looking after your balance is important.
Balance depends on a number of systems working together. In the inner ears, the organs of balance (known as the vestibular system) sense the position of your head, how fast you’re moving in a straight line and rotational movement.
More balance information comes from your eyes and the touch sensors in your skin. Position sensors in and around the joints of your lower legs and in your neck are also important, especially when you start moving from a standstill. Your brain responds to balance information by constantly adjusting its control of different muscles around your body, carefully alerting your posture.
Our balance control systems can become less efficient with age. Health problems don’t help either, for example, arthritis can alter the stability of your joints, changes to your inner ear in a problem such as Meniere’s disease can increase unsteadiness and a lack of Vitamin D could reduce your muscle strength. Loss of eyesight affects balance – try closing your eyes to see how you get on without visual clues, but be sure to have something close to grip on should you wobble.
Preserve your balance by having regular check-ups for sight and hearing, and wear glasses or a hearing aid if you need one. Exercise several times a week to keep your muscles and joints strong. Pilates and yoga are especially beneficial because they work the core muscles in your back, tummy and pelvis. Or get a wobble board, a platform over a curved surface, which you can use at home strengthen the muscles and balance sensors of your feet, lower limbs and trunk.
Make sure your diet includes enough calcium for bone strength and consider a Vitamin D supplement as the UV light levels that stimulate Vitamin D production in the skin are low in the UK. If you have persistent feelings of dizziness or weakness, ask your GP for a check up and to review any medicines you’re taking.
Q. I grind my teeth when I sleep – what can I do about it?
Dr Trisha says: One of the main identifiable factors contributing to teeth grinding (also known as bruxism) is stress. Many people with anxiety or worries clench their teeth or jaw during the day, often subconsciously, and then grind their teeth during sleep.
Your first step should be to work out the causes of stress in your life and try to tackle them. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps change the way you think about and deal with problems, may be useful. You may also find that relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga, especially before you go to bed, help. If the grinding persists, your dentist may be able to fit a mouth guard or mouth splint, which can help protect your teeth.
- Dr Trisha writes a column every fortnight in Yours magazine. Ask Dr Trisha about your health problems by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.