We know that good balance keeps us from falling. Now new research indicates it’s correlated to brain health, too.
In a 2013 study published in The Journals of Gerontology, 51 seniors with an average age of nearly 83 received computer-based cognitive training three times a week for 10 weeks. Each session lasted 60 minutes.
The games (Jewel Diver, Road Tour and Sweep Seeker) asked participants to concentrate on tracking multiple falling jewels, remembering route information on a map, and matching items and making decisions based on visual processing. Subjects’ movement and balancing abilities were tested at the beginning and end of the program.
After only 10 weeks of training, participants showed significant improvement on the Berg Balance Scale that measures balance abilities in older adults and increased gait speed.
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A second study conducted at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Kyoto, Japan, asked 1,387 participants, average age 67, to stand on one leg with both eyes open. The brains of the participants were also examined using an MRI.
Subjects who were unable to balance for 20 seconds showed more tissue damage in their brains. They also scored lower in tests of cognitive functioning.
Why is balance so closely linked to the brain?
Good balance depends on correct sensory information from multiple sources, including eyes, muscles, tendons, joints and balance organs in the inner ear, according to the American Physical Therapy Association website.
These data are sent to the brainstem, where they are combined with other input from the cerebellum and cerebral cortex. The brain controls balance by accessing the most relevant bits of info and putting them to use as needed. For instance, if you’re walking in the dark, visual information is less accurate, so your brain relies more heavily on senses from the legs and feet.
The brain is responsible for orchestrating the complex activities involved in balance and muscle coordination, explained Louisa Sylvia, director of psychology at the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
As with many other mental abilities, these brain functions can deteriorate with age and inactivity. Fortunately, both balance and coordination can be improved with practice. And that’s something to think about.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com.
Exercises for improving balance
- Stand on one foot. Stand behind a sturdy chair. Raise one foot. Hold the position for up to 10 seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times. Then repeat the process with the other leg.
- Heel-to-toe walk. Position the heel of one foot just in front of the toes of the other foot. Your heel and toes should touch or almost touch. Focus your gaze on a spot ahead of you to keep steady. Take a step and place your heel just in front of the toes on your other foot. Repeat for 20 steps.
- Balance walk. Raise your arms to your side, shoulder height. Focus your gaze ahead of you. Begin walking a straight line, lifting your back leg, pausing in mid-air for one second, then stepping forward. Repeat for 20 steps, alternating legs.
National Institute on Aging