Balancing Act

Unsteady on your feet? A primary care doctor weighs in on next steps

Disorientation. Disequilibrium. Vertigo. There are a dizzying number of issues and diagnoses associated with balance. According to the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation, one in three seniors report problems with walking or keeping their balance every year. And since falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries among American seniors, it’s an issue that should not be ignored. 

“As we get older, many of us lose strength in our extremities,” explains Dr. Chase Yonce, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated primary care doctor. “This can make walking and other complex activities more difficult, increasing a person’s chance of falling.” Risk for inner ear disturbances and vertigo—which produces a spinning sensation, among other symptoms—increases with age. Plus, “Mixing certain medications or taking more than prescribed can make you susceptible to dizziness,” notes Dr. Yonce.

So how can you stay sure-footed? First, says Dr. Yonce, never dismiss a warning sign that your strength is declining. Perhaps you can’t perform an exercise you used to ace or you have difficulty changing positions. “You may be referred to a physical therapist, who can help you improve muscle imbalances, greatly reducing your risk for falls,” says Dr. Yonce. 

Next, stay active. “Regular physical activity is key to combatting atrophy and overall muscle weakness,” says Dr. Yonce (see sidebar for tips). Finally, maintain routine vision and hearing screenings, as changes to either sense can be a red flag for balance problems, and be sure to take medications only as directed.

Dizziness can be a side effect of low blood pressure and certain chronic conditions, so visit your primary care doctor immediately if you experience severe dizziness, light-headedness or vertigo, says Dr. Yonce.

“Lab work and a complete physical exam may be necessary, or you may be referred to a specialist like a neurologist for further testing or treatment.” Though unnerving, balance issues are often treatable, if not entirely reversible. —Alex Keith

Work it Out! 

Regular exercise is as beneficial for your balance as it is for your heart. To build and maintain healthy muscle tissue, Dr. Yonce recommends daily walking or biking along with resistance training with light weights or bands a few days a week. Here, find three balance-boosting exercises to add to your regimen.

Balance: By the Numbers


Feeling down? Here’s a quick tip to cheer up

You know the adage “fake it ‘til you make it.” Well, results from a 2020 study first published in Experimental Psychology show that may indeed be the case when it comes to smiling. Researchers from the University of South Australia found that just flexing your grin muscles can have a real effect on your mood. For the study, 120 participants held a pen between their teeth, covertly activating the facial muscles that are used to smile. Researchers measured a distinct increase in positive emotions among participants after the simple exercise when compared with before. They explain that smiling—whether real or forced—has the power to activate the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain, which is in charge of releasing neurotransmitters that boost mood. So after you work your body out with exercise, give your face a turn! Smiling is a simple exercise that may yield science-backed mental health perks.  

Photographs by (beach) StudioByTheSea/SHUTTERSTOCK, (plank) Prostock-studio/shutterstock, (smiling man) by Monkey Business Images/SHUTTERSTOCK