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As we age, we teeter -- but we could do it less


THE PEW RESEARCH Center recently reported that 60 percent of working mothers say they would prefer to work part-time.

I am not sure the numbers would be much different if you asked working fathers. Or working 50-year-olds of any description.

We all see part-time employment as the way to balance our lives between work and family, between work and recreation, between time off and money, between ambition and just a paycheck, between career and kids.

But there is another kind of balance in our lives that isn't getting the attention it deserves.

Balance, as in not falling down.

You probably think that's a problem for the elderly, and you'd be right.

Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among those 65 and older, and the No. 1 reason older adults are admitted to nursing homes, according to health statistics.

But when my yoga teacher guided our class through a couple of balance poses, even the vital 20-somethings were tipping over like trees in a hurricane.

Balance, it turns out, is a much-overlooked element of fitness.

We are all about core strength and cardiovascular strength. But, though overall fitness improves balance, we don't give it much special attention.

With balance, as in so many things, you use it or you lose it.

According to medical literature, we begin losing about five-tenths of our sense of balance every year from the age of 25 on. By the age of 40, we probably can't stand on one foot for 15 seconds with our eyes closed. (Try it.)

Where does our balance come from? And where does it go as we age?

Some scientists think balance should be considered our sixth sense, right up there with sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

According to Michael Schubert, who has a Ph.D in physical therapy and runs the balance clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, balance comes from the delicate and high-

speed cooperation of our eyes, our feet and the three tiny loops in each inner ear called the vestibular apparatus.

Inside the loops are little hairs in a fluid bath that send messages to the brain about where we are in space as those fluid levels change.

The brain, which is also getting messages from the feet and the eyes, said Schubert, in turn sends messages to the muscles to make adjustments that keep us upright.

As we age, our vision deteriorates, the vestibular system is less sensitive, we lose sensation in our feet, and our muscles and joints are less responsive to the corrections being sent by the brain.

"The hair cells in the vestibular system begin to die off and there is a reduction in the amount of information going to the brain," said Schubert.

The answer, he said, is to train the brain to develop different lines of communication to compensate.

"We can force the brain to find a new way to do the old task. We can keep the system sharp, and balance can improve."

Scott McCredie, in his new book Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense, suggests activities to help us maintain our balance.

Among them are the usual suspects: yoga, Pilates and strenuous walking.

Tai chi, because of its slow movement with lots of weight shifting, has become one of the most popular and most effective ways to improve balance, especially among seniors.

Even ballroom dancing and gardening are considered excellent activities for maintaining balance.

And some simple exercises at home can help: rising on tiptoes 10 times and repeating it with eyes closed; standing on one leg and lifting the other 10 times and repeating it with eyes closed; walking heel-to-toe across the room, doing it backward and doing it with eyes closed.

Heck, there are even reports, one of which was done by the USDA, that say eating a cup of blueberries everyday will help improve balance, possibly by reducing the damage of certain free radicals to the inner ear.

Maintaining our balance seems like just one more thing to add to our list of things-to-do-as-we-

age. But it might be worth it to move it toward the top of that list.

By the time we are over 60, doctors say, our finely tuned system of balance can become confused by even the simplest movements.

And fear of falling becomes so strong in us that we reduce our activity and therefore our quality of life.

"This is part of the graying of America," said Schubert. "Over the age of 64 or 65, one of the primary complaints general practitioners hear from their patients is dizziness or falling."

But even if you are not there yet -- when the curb or the steps become a terrifying challenge and the stepstool or the garden hose, deadly -- working on your balance can improve your posture and your coordination.

It can make you more confident, more graceful.

And wouldn't we all like to be a little more graceful?


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