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Senior Citizen's Guide

Balance Problems

About Balance Problems

Roughly 9 percent of adults who are 65 and older report having problems with balance. Having good balance means being able to control and maintain your body's position, whether you are moving or remaining still.

An intact sense of balance helps you:

Good balance is important to help you get around, stay independent, and carry out daily activities. Disturbances of the inner ear are the main cause of balance problems. People feel unsteady or as if they were moving, spinning, or floating.

Vertigo, the feeling that you or the things around you are spinning, is also a common symptom. Experts believe that more than 40 percent of Americans will experience dizziness that is serious enough to go to a doctor.

Balance disorders are one reason older people fall. Falls and fall-related injuries, such as hip fracture, can have a serious impact on an older person's life. If you fall, it could limit your activities or make it impossible to live independently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults ages 65 years and older fall each year. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths.

Causes and Prevention

People are more likely to have problems with balance as they get older. But age is not the only reason these problems occur; there are other causes, too. In some cases, you can help reduce your risk for certain balance problems. Have you ever felt dizzy, lightheaded, or as if the room were spinning around you? These can be very troublesome sensations. If the feeling happens often, it could be a sign of a balance problem. Balance problems are among the most common reasons that older adults seek help from a doctor.

Some balance disorders are caused by problems in the inner ear. Others may involve another part of the body, such as the brain or the heart. Aging, infections, head injury, certain medicines, or problems with blood circulation may result in a balance problem.

Your diet and lifestyle can help you manage certain balance-related problems. For example, Ménière's disease, which causes vertigo and other balance and hearing problems, is linked to a change in the volume of fluid in the inner ear.

By eating low-salt or salt-free foods, and steering clear of caffeine and alcohol, you can make its symptoms less severe. Balance problems due to high blood pressure can be managed by eating less sodium, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Some people may have a balance problem without realizing it. Others might think they have a problem, but are too embarrassed to tell their doctor, friends, or family. You can help identify a possible balance problem by asking yourself some key questions and, if necessary, having your balance checked by a doctor.

Balance disorders can be difficult to diagnose because patients sometimes find it hard to describe their symptoms to a doctor. Patients may use words such as "dizzy," "woozy," or "lightheaded" to describe what they are feeling. For some people, the feeling can be brief, while for others, it can last a long time, disrupting their daily lives.

Balance disorders are serious. Sometimes they are a sign of other health problems, such as those affecting the brain, the heart, or circulation of the blood. They are also one cause of falls and fall-related injuries in older people. For these reasons, it is important to have a potential balance disorder diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, you should discuss the symptom with your doctor.

If you think that you have a balance disorder, you should schedule an appointment with your family doctor. You can help your doctor make a diagnosis by writing down key information about your dizziness or balance problem beforehand and giving the information to your doctor during the visit. Tell your doctor as much as you can.

Your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist. This doctor and surgeon has special training in problems of the ear, nose, throat, head, and neck. An otolaryngologist may ask you for your medical history and perform a physical examination to help figure out the possible causes of the balance disorder. He or she may also perform tests to determine the cause and extent of the problem.

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