Aussie researcher finds strong link between older people’s poor balance, overall health

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An international research team, including one of Australia’s geriatricians, has found a disconcerting connection between older people’s poor sense of balance and their likelihood to die prematurely.

University of Sydney Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh said the research, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on Wednesday, examined data of more than 1,700 people aged from early 50s to 75 and their ability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds.

The study, which spanned about 12 years, found that those who failed the 10-second tests had an 84-percent heightened risk of death from any cause within the next decade compared to those who could hold their balance.

Fiatarone Singh told Xinhua on Thursday that the observational study did not explain the reason behind the “surprisingly high” correlation between balance and mortality but rather appeared to be a warning of an inherent weakness.

In general, those who failed the balance test were more prone to suffer from ailments such as obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure, and were three times likelier to have type 2 diabetes.

“The next stage of the research would be to find out the whys; for example, the connection between poor balance and neurological, cognitive or muscular degeneration,” Fiatarone Singh said.

“Loss of muscle mass, for instance, is common among older people, so that could affect their ability to balance.”

Further studies could also look at potentially influential factors including a recent history of falls, physical activity levels, diet, smoking and the use of drugs.

The researchers said the study indicated there was a need for simple and safe balance tests to become a routine part of older people’s health checks.

The good news, Fiatarone Singh said, is that balancing is a skill that is very trainable, which means people can improve by incorporating simple exercises into their daily routines.

“I regularly stand on one leg for 10 seconds or so when I’m lecturing or perhaps standing at the kitchen sink,” she said.

“I would recommend people try regularly doing it. And then while doing so, try some sort of cognitive exercise as well. For instance, count backwards from 100 going down by sevens … so 93, 86 and so on.”

“It gets the brain working and builds your ability to balance — those things are really important as we get older.” ■