When I was a 6-year-old kid, I remember stepping on my grandma’s toes accidentally. She screeched in pain, and as a reflex, I cowered apologetically. My grandparents always seemed old, and I don’t think it’s because of my perspective as a child thinking everyone over the age of 25 was ancient. I can look back on pictures from the ’60s, 70s, and ’80s and recognize that once people hit 40, it’s as though they resigned themselves to looking, acting, and being old. I’ve jokingly said that many people from the ’70s and ’80s look the “same amount old” at 40 as they did when they were nearing 80.
I realize now that there’s so much to looking and acting old that is 100% a mindset. Once my grandma hit 40 years old, she resigned herself to comfortable, elastic waist polyester clothes, sensible thick-soled shoes worn with pantyhose, and…bad posture. I never thought of her as being vibrant and energetic. My grandparents walked slowly, sat on the couch, and struggled to do basic household chores and errands. It was shocking that, as an adult, I realized that when they seemed so old to me in my youth, they were actually the age I am now! The loss of fluid movement, slowed reflexes, wincing in pain to sit or stand, taking stairs, curbs, and small obstacles slowly and methodically. Their life became restricted at such an early age.
Age-related muscle loss may decrease mobility, and that loss of muscle mass can begin as early as 30 years, becoming more prominent from age 50 upward. That certainly explains why without training and movement, a person can start looking and acting “old” long before their retirement years. The rate of muscle loss is influenced by the amount of regular physical activity people do throughout their lives.
What a tragedy that my grandma was in her 40s and 50s, struggling to move and lacking energy. I contrast my memories of her with what I’m doing now in my late 40s. I feel strong, energetic, lively, and agile, and I run, jump, lift weights, and do a myriad of resistance workouts. I also routinely work on core strength and balance because I learned somewhere along the way that once age-related balance disorders set in, the chances of injury and even eventually death from those injuries increase exponentially. As soon as you become less sure on your feet, you’re a greater danger to yourself!
The prevalence of gait (walking) and balance disorders is around 10% between 60 and 69 years of age and more than 60% in those over 80 years. About 30% of people aged 65 and over have a fall at least once each year, increasing to 50% in people aged 80 and over.
I watched my grandparents resign themselves to the aging process. They may have had other minor health issues that slowed them down, but overall, it seemed to be an issue of progressively decreasing movement and zero effort to build or maintain muscle. It wasn’t a popular or trendy thought at that time. It most likely never crossed their minds to work on their physical fitness, or they didn’t think it would make any difference to their long-term health. They bought into a “what will be will be” mantra, and I’m confident their lives were cut short because of it. Sedentary time and lack of activity contribute to the loss of the ability to walk in old age. If there’s a basic struggle to walk, it can affect balance, especially when there’s difficulty coordinating movement.
Sometimes balance problems are the warning signs of other health conditions, so it’s essential to seek your doctor’s advice if you have balance issues. Some of those health conditions may be a heart disorder or a problem in the brain or nervous system. However, most age-related balance issues occur due to muscle loss, weakened core strength, and lack of agility or cross-training. Physical fitness can make a life-changing difference in your quality of life as you age.
Balance issues are among the most common reasons older adults seek help from a doctor. In adults over age 65, balance problems are linked to falls. One-third of adults in this age group and over half of people over the age of 75 years fall each year. Balance disorders are serious because of the risk of falls, and the fear of falling often causes people to do less physically and socially.
Improving your balance and physical fitness can contribute to a longer, healthier life by making you feel better, socializing with friends, and carrying out independent tasks like bathing, dressing, cooking, eating, or getting around your home. The statistics can seem bleak; about 36 million falls are reported among older adults each year, resulting in more than 32,000 deaths. Obviously, being steady on your feet and having good balance decreases the risk of falling exponentially. Additionally, about 3 million older adults are treated in emergency rooms for a fall injury each year. They often never fully recover, leading to additional loss of mobility, decreased quality of life, and increased risk of falling repeatedly.
Balance exercises can help you maintain your balance and confidence at any age! If you’re an older adult, balance exercises are especially important because they can help you prevent falls, maintain your independence, and lead to a longer, healthier life.