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Common Balance Problems in Older Adults

Have you ever felt dizzy, struggled to stay upright, or felt unsteady when getting out of your chair? While there are a number of reasons someone may lose their footing or even take a tumble, balance is one of the more common causes.

But what causes balance problems? The answer is not always because of "old age." In fact, you may be able to address many balance issues directly with the help of your health care provider or rehabilitation specialist. Here are some of the causes that can contribute to a fall, and not all of them are age-related.

What are balance problems?

First, it’s best to know if what you’re experiencing is actually a balance-related issue or something else. Weakness, poor eyesight, or simply misjudging the space you have to walk through a door, for example, are all things that can cause falls but that aren’t tied specifically to balance.

Poor balance generally results in teetering, wobbling, or staggering when trying to walk or even get up out of bed or a chair. The instability can come from feeling like you are going to fall, experiencing a spinning feeling, light-headedness, or faintness. Sometimes, blurry vision or even confusion can accompany these symptoms.

While weak balance is enough to cause a fall, a loss of balance can lead to these other issues:

  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Panic or anxiety
  • Spikes in heart rate or blood pressure

These symptoms can happen suddenly and go away quickly, or they may last for a long time. Be sure to see your doctor if you experience them so that they can make a diagnosis.

Primary balance problems in elderly adults

Here are some of the more common loss of balance causes.

1. Ménière's Disease

If your ears feel full, you may have Ménière's Disease, which is a common reason for losing your footing. Other signs include ringing in the ears and difficulty hearing out of one or both ears. This inner-ear disturbance can happen for many reasons, but aging is one of them. It’s also likely to occur after an ear infection or a blow to the head. The origin of Ménière's Disease is unknown.

2. Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)

If you've ever experienced violent dizziness when getting out of bed or turning your head from side to side, you could be dealing with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). This is a common balance disorder caused by an inner-ear disturbance, which is typically related to a loose particle called otoconia tumbling into a sensitive place in your ear canal. It may come back many times in your life, but there are exercises you can do to dislodge the otoconia and get relief.

3. Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis is caused by an inner ear infection, and this condition makes it difficult to keep your balance. If you've had the flu, cold, or another upper respiratory disease, you are at risk of developing this secondary illness.

4. Mal de Debarquement syndrome (MdDS)

If you’ve been on a boat, cruise, or treadmill, you could experience a moving sensation long after. This is called Mal de Debarquement syndrome (MdDS), and it’s not usually known how it starts. It can subside on its own, but it may take hours or even years for that to happen.

Other disorders that affect balance

There are many conditions that could have you stumbling to stand straight, and some are very serious. These causes of balance problems include:

  • Untreated ear or sinus infections
  • Stroke
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Low blood pressure

Loss of balance can come from not getting enough fluids or drinking too much alcohol. Also, conditions such as low sodium (hyponatremia) can lead to confusion and disorientation.

In short, if you have a balance concern, the risks of not seeing a doctor can be severe. You may be able to resolve some balance conditions quite easily. However, you and your doctor may need to address any condition that’s connected to serious, underlying health issues.

Those who want to maintain a life of mobility and independence should listen to their body and act accordingly. Balance is something that we all need, and without it, life can become unsatisfying and possibly even dangerous.

Questions to ask yourself about balance

It can be difficult to admit when balance issues occur. Many fear it will lead to discovering a scary diagnosis or possibly signal to others that you aren't able to take good care of yourself. However, when you don’t treat balance problems, they can cause a serious issue to go undiagnosed and possibly even contribute to life-threatening falls.

Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “yes” to any of them, consult your doctor.

  • Do I ever feel like I am falling, even when I’m not?
  • Do I find it easier to fall?
  • Do I frequently stumble, stagger, or sway when doing simple activities?
  • Am I ever confused about what time it is or where I am at?
  • Do I experience light-headedness or a feeling like I may "blackout" or faint?
  • Do I even feel like part of my body or even my whole body is moving when it isn’t?
  • Is blurry vision happening more often?

Your primary care doctor can point in the right direction of a specialist well-versed in these issues. It could be a head issue, neck or back issue, or something with your ears, nose, or throat. Since so many things can lead to balance difficulties, it's best not to try to diagnose it on your own.

What to do while resolving balance problems

After you’ve seen a physician, you may have a solid plan in place to handle what causes balance problems. In the meantime, you can take steps to minimize falls and work through your treatment:

  • Create a safe home environment by removing trip and fall hazards, such as loose carpeting, cords, uneven surfaces, and slippery surfaces.
  • Keep your living space well-lit.
  • Wear appropriate shoes at all times, especially those that fit well and have non-slip soles. Keep your laces tied or skip them completely with Velcro fasteners.
  • Use supportive devices as you move around, such as walkers or canes. Make sure they are securely set up and have non-stick bottoms, too.
  • Avoid ladders, step stools, or stairs while you feel dizzy. If this isn't possible, invest in high-quality assistive devices that won't slide or collapse while using them.
  • Get in and out of the bath or shower carefully. Use handrails or other accessories that help to keep you balanced while transitioning in and out. If you can use showers temporarily, consider it.
  • Take your time getting up from a seated position. This includes not rushing to get out of bed in the morning. Slow and steady really does make the most sense.
  • Have a plan for if you fall, including an emergency phone or medical alert service, if possible.
  • Tell your doctor if you have fallen or have fall concerns. Some issues may be made worse by your current medications. They can help assess your current dosage and make adjustments, even if just temporarily, while you recover your balance.

One other thing to consider is in-home help. Whether you hire a handyman to change your light bulbs or have someone come in for more hands-on assistance with changing, bathing, or cooking, it may be worthwhile investing in an extra set of stable hands if your budget allows.

Bottom line

You may experience a loss of balance with age for the first time. Or, you may have a long history with some of these issues. Whatever your experience, you can often find relief or some form of treatment. Just make sure to talk to your doctor to find out the best way to address these concerns.

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