If there is one thing that we’ve learned over the years, it’s that MANY factors contribute to falls. From normal changes that occur within your body during the aging process, to medical conditions, medications, and even your surroundings, it can be difficult to know where to start! Let’s break it into bite size pieces and begin with changes that occur during the aging process which can contribute to loss of balance and falls.
Changes That Occur With Normal Aging: Proprioception
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are already aware that your body has senses—a sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. You may be surprised to learn that you also have a lesser known “sense” known as proprioception. This sense provides you with awareness of the positioning of your body and limbs. Communication between your muscles, nerves, and brain allows you to quickly process information about the positioning of your arms and legs which helps you safely move around. It also lets you control your limbs without needing to look at them.
Let’s look at an example of proprioception in action. You are walking on your driveway (a hard, flat, and even surface) and step onto your lawn (a slightly softer, more irregular surface). It’s unlikely that you pay any attention to this change, but your body certainly noticed! Feedback from your muscles is quickly processed by your brain and small changes are made to the positioning of your joints and tension in your muscles to keep you upright.
Unfortunately, your sense of proprioception can weaken over time. Several studies have demonstrated that the body responds differently to changes in body position with age. If you were to walk from your driveway onto your lawn in your younger years, your body would make subtle adjustments in the smaller muscles of your lower legs designed for fine motor control. In older adults, the body relies on the bigger thigh muscles (which are designed for large and powerful movements) to make these fine adjustments. The result is an increased risk for falls.
Changes That Occur With Normal Aging: The Vestibular System
Embedded within the inner ear is the vestibular system— a complex system with the important function of helping you stay upright. While you may not have heard of it before, you most certainly have felt its effects. Remember that dizzy feeling you experienced after hopping off a merry-go-round as a child? Or the wooziness that you felt during turbulence on a flight? Those are the vestibular system in action!
The vestibular system provides your brain with feedback regarding your body’s vertical position (standing vs. lying down), linear movement (standing still vs. moving forward/backward), and rotational movement (turning your head side to side). When functioning appropriately, this system helps you maintain your posture and balance. As you age, changes to the vestibular system can impact your ability to control your posture.
Changes That Occur With Normal Aging: Your Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is something that we all take for granted—until something goes awry. Your body needs to be able to maintain blood pressure within a normal range. If it creeps too high (hypertension), it can lead to heart disease, stroke, and damage to organs including the kidneys and eyes. If it falls too low (hypotension), it can lead to light-headedness, loss of consciousness, and falls. As you probably guessed, with age comes the possibility of several changes which can lead to episodes of low blood pressure and falls.
Your body has receptors (known as baroreceptors) strategically placed in certain blood vessels to sense changes in blood pressure. If your blood pressure dips too low, these receptors send feedback to your heart to increase your heart rate and quickly restore your blood pressure back into the normal range. Unfortunately, your baroreceptors become less sensitive to changes in blood pressure with age. This can lead to more noticeable swings in blood pressure as you change positions, such as when you rise from a lying or seated position. You may become more likely to experience episodes of low blood pressure which can lead to light-headedness, loss of consciousness, and falls.
There you have it. Three significant changes within your body that are working against your goal of remaining upright as you enter your glory years. Before we get to talk about specific actions you can take to prevent falls, we still need to learn more about hidden dangers waiting to knock you off of your feet—including certain diseases and medications which can lead to falls.