As we age, our sense of balance sometimes can betray us. The best way to avoid potentially devastating falls is to prioritize staying balanced and to avoid tasks that steal our focus from where it needs to be.
In fact, “dual-tasking” — standing or walking while also performing a separate mental or physical task — is the No. 1 source of falls for older adults, according to Brad Manor, an associate scientist at the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Writing in the Harvard Health Blog, Manor says older adults are much more vulnerable to falls if they are moving when they try to perform a separate cognitive or motor task.
Examples might include reading while walking, or talking and carrying a cup of coffee as you stroll.
Manor says simply standing upright or walking down a well-lit hallway are surprisingly complex physical tasks. Such activities involve continuously stabilizing our body’s center of mass (which is just behind the sternum, or breastbone) over the relatively small base of support that we create by how we position our feet on the ground.
“This control requires quick reflexes, as well as strong muscles of the trunk, hips, legs, ankles, and toes. However, to avoid falling we also need to pay attention to our body and environment, predict and perceive unsafe movements of our body, and adjust accordingly.”
As we grow older, simple tasks such as standing and walking require greater levels of cognitive effort as our senses and muscle strength begin to fade. As we spend more cognitive effort on those tasks, it steals away resources from controlling our body’s center of mass over our feet. Falls are often the result.
How to prevent falls
To prevent falling, Manor suggests increasing awareness of your surroundings. Minimize distractions when in a crowded room, walking on uneven sidewalks, or hurrying to get somewhere, he says. Also, minimize or avoid talking while moving.
Keeping your mind sharp can help. Manor writes that older adults with cognitive impairment are more than twice as likely to fall as their peers who do not have such cognitive issues. For help with that, check out “5 Secrets to Keeping Your Brain Sharp as You Age.”
Engaging in mind-body exercises such as tai chi, yoga or dance can help. These activities all help to improve your balance.
Finally, Manor emphasizes that falls are rarely the result of one factor. Poor muscle strength, fatigue and failing vision can all contribute to falls. So, the best way to prevent falls is to combine multiple preventive measures.