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Improving balance reduces risk of falls; Exercise: Training for balance may be ignored by young people, but it could be helpful for seniors.; LIFE AFTER 50


Even the fear of falling can be enough to restrict an older person's activities.

That's what makes balance so important.

Want proof of how important balance is? Stand up. Close your eyes. "The more you sway, the bigger your risk is," says Michael Rogers, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University.

"Balance is probably the most important physical component for older adults," he says.

"It's becoming increasingly important because of the number of people suffering falls."

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates that one of every three seniors (65 or older) in the United States has a fall each year. The incidence increases to one in two for people over 80, Rogers says.

Ninety percent of the 300,000 hip fractures each year can be attributed to falls.

Rogers says a quarter of the elderly people who fall will avoid even basic activities such as bathing and dressing because they fear falling again. Their fear fuels a cycle of decreased physical abilities, limited social contacts and depression.

"A fall is kind of the end product. ... The fear of falling can be as devastating as a fall itself," Rogers says.

A decline in balance starts to be noticeable about age 70, when it's hard to stand on one foot or to walk along a curb.

When we're young, we tend to ignore balance in favor of aerobic exercise or weight loss. "We have no idea how to do it," Rogers says.

On the other hand, "We really can't prescribe" the amount of balance training a person needs, as we can for cardiovascular exercise, for example, because not enough study has been done, Rogers says.

Strength training -- now being emphasized in health clubs -- obviously is a start: "If your legs aren't strong, you can't stand up" or do the other sorts of things that maintain balance.

Because we get most of our balance feedback from our eyes, poor lighting or glaucoma can affect balance, too. So can hearing -- an inner ear infection can make a person feel dizzy. And a declining sense of touch means feet aren't sending strong signals about balance.

Yoga, tai chi, Pickle-ball (sort of a combination of pingpong, tennis and badminton) and exercise balls are among the activities that can help develop balance, at any age.

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