Whether you’re 20 or 80 years old, you can have problems with dizziness and balance. But as you age, a number of health issues and risk factors can put you an increased risk for dizziness and injury from falls.
In fact, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Report, in the United States, about one in four adults (28%) age 65 and older, report falling each year. This results in about 36 million falls annually. While not all falls result in an injury, about 37% of those who fall reported an injury that required medical treatment or restricted their activity for at least one day, resulting in an estimated 8 million fall injuries.
But why do older adults commonly experience a decline in their balance and what can they do about it?
As the body ages, many of its systems that help maintain good balance begin to decline. According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, anatomical studies have shown that the number of nerve cells in the vestibular system decrease after about age 55.
One of the first signs that there may be a balance problem is difficulty walking or standing, especially in the dark on soft surfaces like carpet, or uneven surfaces, like a path or trail.
There are several things that can contribute to poor balance and a risk of falling for older adults. Some of the most common are:
- Impaired inner ear function
- Heart disease, including low or high blood pressure
- Neurological disease
- Diabetes and neuropathy in the feet
- Impaired mental status, including dementia
- Poor nutrition, including dehydration
- Poor vision, often a result of cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration
- Fall risks in the home, such as stairs, throw rugs and clutter
Often, dizziness is caused by issues within the inner ear. One of the most common is called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), but dizziness also may be caused by infection, Meniere’s disease, or reduced blood flow to the inner ear. Some medicines that many older adults take also may cause dizziness, such as antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs.
BPPV, the most common vestibular disorder, is the cause of approximately 50% of dizziness in older adults. It’s caused when debris, called otoconia, loosen and tumble into the inner ear’s semi-circular canals. When this happens, it can cause a sense of spinning or vertigo.
A change of position of the head or body can trigger BPPV. Even movements considered normal for most people, like tipping your head up or down, quickly turning your head from side to side, bending over to pick something up, rolling over in bed, or getting in and out of bed, can trigger BPPV and severe dizziness. Typically, this sensation only lasts less than a minute, but it can make you feel nauseous and off balance.
Fortunately, BPPV can be diagnosed by a vestibular audiologist using highly sophisticated technology. If BPPV is the cause of the dizziness, it can be treated by a vestibular audiologist trained in repositioning maneuvers that help return the otoconia to the correct position in the inner ear.
How can older adults prevent balance problems?
Preventing balance issues starts with your annual check-up with your primary care provider. As you get older, especially after age 65, your provider should ask you if you’ve felt dizzy or off balance recently and also should ask if you’ve had any recent falls.
Be honest with your provider. If you’ve been experiencing dizziness, light headedness or you’ve fallen, don’t be embarrassed. Tell them. Preventing a fall is much, much better than dealing with the serious consequences of a fall and possible injury.
Your provider may refer you to an audiologist to check your inner ear function. The audiologist may be able to treat the problem if it’s caused by BPPV, for example. But if the issue isn’t related to your inner ear, you also may be referred to other medical specialists such as a neurologist, cardiologist or physical therapist.
Sometimes exercises and lifestyle changes can improve balance too. Be aware that it can be very difficult to diagnose and treat dizziness and balance problems for some people but follow your provider’s advice. Depending on the source of the problem, using a walker or cane to help with balance, or making small changes around the home, like removing throw rugs, can help prevent a fall.
Associated Audiologists has an audiologist who is trained in diagnosing and managing dizziness and balance problems, including BPPV. You might want to consider scheduling an appointment with our vestibular disorders specialist if you’ve experienced any of the following:
- Vertigo or dizziness
- A feeling of motion or spinning with quick head movement
- A feeling of motion or spinning when changing positions
- A sense of unsteadiness or a fear of falling
- Difficulty maneuvering in the dark
- Your feet not going where you want them to
- Discomfort looking at moving objects
- Frequent falls
Schedule an appointment with our vestibular disorders specialist.
Download our free e-book on dizziness here.