As people grow older, they may have difficulty with their balance. Nearly 8 million American adults report having a chronic problem with balance. An additional 2.4 million American adults report having a chronic problem with dizziness alone.
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:
- walk without staggering
- get up from a chair without falling
- climb stairs without tripping
Good balance is important to help you get around, stay independent, and carry out daily activities.
Many people experience problems with their sense of balance as they get older. Disturbances of the inner ear are the main cause. 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.
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. Many people often become more isolated after a fall.
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.
There are many types of balance disorders. One of the most common is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. With BPPV, you experience a brief, intense feeling of vertigo that occurs when you change the position of your head.
You may also experience BPPV when rolling over to the left or right, upon getting out of bed in the morning, or when looking up for an object on a high or low shelf. BPPV is more likely to occur in adults ages 60 and older, but can also occur in younger people.
In BPPV, small calcium stones in the inner ear become displaced, causing a person to feel dizzy. The reason they become displaced is not known, although it may be caused by an inner ear infection, head injury, or aging.
Another type of balance disorder is labyrinthitis. This is an infection or inflammation of the inner ear causing dizziness and loss of balance. The labyrinth is the organ in your inner ear that helps you maintain your balance.
Ménière’s disease is a balance disorder that causes a person to experience:
- hearing loss that comes and goes
- tinnitus, which is a ringing or roaring in the ears
- a feeling of fullness in the ear.
It affects adults of any age. The cause is unknown. There are many ways to treat balance disorders. Treatments will vary depending on the cause. See your doctor if you are experiencing dizziness, vertigo, or other problems with your balance.
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.
The part of the inner ear that is responsible for balance is the labyrinth. When the labyrinth becomes infected or swollen, often through an ear infection such as otitis media, it can cause dizziness and loss of balance. This condition is called labyrinthitis.
Upper respiratory infections and other viral infections, as well as stress, fatigue, allergies, smoking, or alcohol use, also can increase the risk for labyrinthitis.
Balance problems can also result from taking certain medications. For example, some medicines, such as those that help lower blood pressure, can make a person feel dizzy. Ototoxic drugs are medicines that damage the inner ear. Sometimes the damage lasts only as long as you take the drug; other times it is permanent. Some antibiotics are ototoxic. If your medicine is ototoxic, you may feel off balance. Check with your doctor if you notice a problem while taking a medication.
Diseases of the circulatory system, such as stroke, also can cause dizziness and other balance problems. Smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease increase the risk of stroke. Low blood pressure also can cause dizziness to occur.
Your diet and lifestyle can help you manage certain balance-related problems. For example, Mèniére’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.
The ear infection otitis media is most common in children, but adults can get it too. You can help prevent otitis media by washing your hands frequently. Also, get a flu shot every year to stave off flu-related ear infections. If you still get an ear infection, see a doctor immediately before it becomes more serious.
Do you take medication? If so, ask your doctor if your medicine is ototoxic, or damaging to the ear. Ask if other drugs can be used instead. If not, ask if the dose can be safely reduced. Sometimes it cannot. However, your doctor will help you get the medicine you need while trying to reduce unwanted side effects.
For more information, please visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov.
Photo credit: Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock