Treating disorders that cause loss of balance can become a life-or-death issue in the elderly, because loss of balance leads to falls.
The National Institute on Aging tells us that:
- Every year one in four Americans aged 65 and older takes a fall.
- Every 11 seconds, an American aged 65 or older is treated in the ER for a fall. Every 19 minutes, an American aged 65 or older dies of a fall.
- Falls are the number-one cause of injury in older adults. They are also the leading cause for hospital admissions in older adults.
- Older Americans who suffer falls account for 2.8 million ER visits every year. Falls are the reason for 800,000 hospital admissions every year.
- The cost of treating falls in older adults is expected to have reached $67.7 billion in 2020.
Loss of balance doesn’t just cause falls. Even without injury, loss of balance greatly reduces quality of life for older people. When older adults fear falling, they don’t get out as often. They limit their social engagements. They limit their exercise. Even when loss of balance does not result in injury, it can cause depression, social isolation, feelings of helplessness, and further physical and mental decline. Treating loss of balance is critical for older people.
Common Balance Issues in the Elderly
If you or an older person you know and love is having trouble staying on their feet, the problem usually isn’t that they are “getting old.” Some of the most common conditions that cause problems with balance are probably problems you wouldn’t expect.
Older people are prone to shingles. It’s a painful skin outbreak that occurs when the herpesvirus that causes chickenpox reawakens in nerves where it has lain dormant for decades.
Since there was no vaccination for chickenpox before 1995, most older people had the disease when they were children or teenagers. The virus never really went away. It just waited for weakening in the immune system to cause another painful round of the disease.
In some older adults, shingles is complicated by a condition known as Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. Nerves near the ear become inflamed so there is intense ear pain, loss of hearing, and loss of balance. This condition can also cause Bell’s Palsy in younger people. It doesn’t usually go away on its own as shingled usually will.
The inner ear can become infected when you get the flu. Even after flu symptoms subside, balance problems can persist. Labyrinthitis is more common in people over 60, but more severe in children and adults under 30.
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or BPPV is a loss of balance when you turn your head. You can get dizzy when you change direction as you walk, or when you get up out of a chair (this can also be a complication of some blood pressure treatments), or even when you roll over in bed. It’s caused by age-related changes in your inner ear, ear infections, or head injury.
Meniere’s Disease is a condition that can cause hearing loss that comes and goes but loss of balance that is more or less all the time. It’s a condition caused by abnormal fluid balances in the inner ear that doesn’t have a known cause, at least not at first. (Meniere’s Disease that has a definitive cause is termed Meniere Syndrome.) it can be aggravated by dehydration, allergies (especially food allergies), head trauma, and, in women, by changes in estrogen levels. Researchers estimate that about 1% of the population of the United States will eventually develop this condition.
Other Chronic Conditions
There are many other conditions that are more common in aging that can cause loss of balance: MS, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, heart problems, high blood pressure, and the medications used to treat them, to name just a few. Any of these conditions increases the risk of loss of balance that can lead to falls.
Treatments for Balance Loss
Do you need treatment for balance loss? Maybe you aren’t sure?
If your answer to any of these questions, it is a good idea to ask your primary care provider or Harbor Audiology for a referral to the specialist who is most likely to be able to help you:
- Do you ever feel like the room is spinning around you?
- Are you unsteady on your feet when you are out walking?
- Do you feel like you are moving even when you are sitting or standing still?
- Does your vision ever get blurry when you feel dizzy?
- Do you have hearing problems when you feel dizzy?
- Have you fallen recently?
Sometimes what’s really needed is a change in medication, an additional medication, or a change in diet. Sometimes it may be necessary to alter one’s use of alcohol or marijuana. Sometimes it’s enough just to avoid crossing your legs when you are sitting down or learning to get up slowly from a chair.
But sometimes balance problems aren’t going to go away so you need to learn new ways to live well with them. That’s where a professional audiologist specializing in vestibular rehabilitation can help. Your vestibular rehabilitation specialist can design a personalized plan that helps you carry on a normal life even though you suffer loss of balance. From choosing the right shoes to knowing you need assistive devices to keep from falling to maintaining your ability to drive your car, vestibular rehabilitation can help you keep a normal lifestyle while keeping yourself and others safe.
Harbor Audiology can help you get the help you need if you are dealing with loss of balance.
Harbor Audiology & Hearing Services Inc. has professional audiologists at locations throughout Western Washington ready to direct you to the help you need for loss of balance. We specialize in helping veterans get the hearing and ear care services they need, and we take most kinds of insurance. We are open nights and weekends to fit your schedule. Call Harbor Audiology at (253) 999-9649 or contact us online to connect to the help you need to live well with balance issues today!