Have you ever walked into a room and felt like the floor was moving? You might have experienced vertigo or lightheadedness. This is because your sensory systems are out of whack, which disrupts your balance and equilibrium.
Sensory systems help keep us balanced and prevent us from falling.
But things like injury, illness, medication side effects, alcohol consumption, stress levels and, of course, aging can make it hard for your body to use your sensory systems.
In this blog post, I will discuss these sensory systems so that you can have a better understanding of what’s happening when you experience balance loss.
What are the reasons older adults fall?
- Impaired vision
- Declining sense of touch or proprioception
- Declining vestibular system
- Declining strength
- Fall/trip hazards at home
- Chronic diseases
The three primary sensory systems your body uses to maintain your balance and equilibrium are:
- Vestibular System (inner ear)
- Somatosensory System (muscles and joints)
Our vision, or sense of sight, is the first thing that provides us with information about our environment.
Unfortunately, as we grow older, our vision declines and becomes less sharp.
The lens in our eye gets older, resulting in a condition called presbyopia which affects most of us as we age. This is because the fluid-filled capsule inside the eye that helps to focus light on the retina has difficulty changing shape over time with aging, similar to an old camera’s lens filter.
As we grow older and our body degenerates, so does our eyesight, meaning that most people will need some type of corrective lenses to fix their vision.
That is the reason a lot of falls happen in low-light conditions – it is difficult for older adults to keep their balance while maneuvering around when the visual cues are limited because of poor lighting conditions.
Our depth perception is also affected by our eyesight. Without the ability to see well, it is difficult for us to judge depth and distance.
Imagine stepping off a curb or step and misjudging the depth or distance.
This is also an issue for people who wear progressive lenses because they cannot adjust their glasses quickly if there’s a change in lighting conditions – such as going from outdoors to indoors.
When you get older, the lens in your eyes can harden and form cataracts. This can make it difficult to see things that are close up. Therefore, if you wear contacts or glasses, they may change because the prescription changes because of the changes in your eyesight due to aging.
The vestibular system is the sensory system that detects motion, orientation, and position.
Sensory receptors in the semicircular canals in your inner ear send information to the brain about what is happening around you, including how far you are from an object or what the position of your body is relative to the surface you are sitting on or standing.
The vestibular system is found in the inner ear, and it’s the most sensitive to changes in motion. If your vestibular system is damaged or not functioning properly, you may experience dizziness and lightheadedness when you move around suddenly.
It is activated when people move or when things around them move. Some people are more sensitive to motion than others, and this can make it hard for these people to balance. The sensing of motion also helps us find our position in space so we know where we are.
The vestibular system is like our eyesight. As we get older, it also gets worse. If your vestibular system is not working properly, you might have trouble balancing or maintaining equilibrium.
The somatosensory system, especially proprioception, is your body map. This map tells you where your body is in space and gets built up from touch and movement information.
Proprioception is the sense of knowing where your body parts are. You can know how far or close your fingers are to each other because of proprioception. It also helps us balance when we walk on uneven ground or when we step off a curb into an icy puddle. Proprioception also helps keep us balanced, even when we’re just sitting or standing still.
This is the reason seniors tend to “touch” on objects to maintain their balance. By touching objects near them, they can receive somatosensory feedback to maintain their equilibrium.
Diseases that affect the peripheral nervous system, such as diabetes or stroke, can compromise the sense of touch.
How do you fix equilibrium problems?
The best way to improve your balance and equilibrium is to do balance exercises targeting each of the three primary sensory systems.
These balance exercises should include:
- Proprioceptive exercises, which target the muscles and joints that are responsible for maintaining your stability
- Visual gaze stabilization exercises to improve sight balance by training active visual attention on a stationary object while also stimulating the semicircular canals of the inner ear while the head is moving.
- Vestibular exercises, which stimulate the vestibular and auditory processes by moving the head in different directions to challenge and improve your balance.
Can the functions of these sensory systems still get better when we are older?
Yes, even as we age, the function of our sensory systems for balance and equilibrium can still be improved.
As the adage goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
The longer we go without using our balance and equilibrium sensory systems, the more difficult it will be to improve them.
One way to combat this is by participating in exercises that challenge these sensory systems, such as low-impact aerobics or tai chi.
These types of exercise are very safe for seniors with balance issues because they use slow movements rather than quick and dynamic movements that may be more difficult to control.
Another way that is safe for older adults with balance issues are exercises such as yoga or pilates where they can use props like a chair, table, or wall and focus on breathing while doing the exercise in order to improve their sense of balance.
With time and practice, these sensory systems will start improving.
This happened to my friend Judy.
Judy had been losing her balance and falling lately. She was getting afraid that she might fall again.
One day, Judy found a flyer advertising tai chi classes at the senior center down the street from her apartment building. With some friends to keep an eye on her, she went to one of the classes as soon as possible because it sounded like something just for people like her!
It turned out that even though this was a beginner’s class, Judy improved her balance every week.
She came back more confident than ever before and now no longer worries about tripping or falling!
This is just one example of how people who are struggling with health issues can look for ways they can improve their quality of life without resorting to expensive treatments or drugs.
Read this post if you want to learn more about fall prevention strategies.
With a focus on balance exercises that target your primary sensory systems, you may improve the function of your vestibular system and proprioceptive senses.
This can lead to fewer falls and more stability in everyday life, as well as an overall increase in quality of life.
Dr. Lex Gonzales, PT, DPT is an author and speaker who has been working as a licensed healthcare professional for over 24 years. On drlexgonzales.com he provides quality information and practical solutions you can use to achieve the best version of your healthy self.