During the aging process, changes occur in our motor and sensory systems which can affect us in a variety of different ways. Many of these changes may result in decreased independence and quality of life. A result or secondary complication of these changes that affect us as we age includes the development of balance deficits. Impaired balance places a person at a higher risk for falls leading to increased risk of fractures and disability especially in the elderly population. A few of these age-related changes that affect our balance includes changes in the muscular system, decreased joint range of motion, diminished sensation, impaired vision, and changes to the vestibular (inner ear) system.
Changes in muscle strength and range of motion are very common contributing factors to balance deficits in older individuals. As we age, the force generating capacity or strength as well as the endurance of skeletal muscles decrease. This is especially true for aging individuals who live sedentary or inactive lifestyles. One way to counteract these changes in muscles is to stay active and be compliant with a safe and effective exercise program. Another contributing factor to balance deficits relating to the musculoskeletal system includes deviations in range of motion. Many older individuals experience decreased joint range of motion and spinal flexibility leading to flexed or stooped posture. As our upright posture becomes more flexed, our center of gravity shifts, which can cause instability, resulting in a greater risk for falls.
Aside from our musculoskeletal system, our sensory system also plays a large role in our ability to maintain balance. It has been shown that, as we age, we experience a loss in our visual field, decline in visual acuity, and impairments in depth perception. As these components decline, we begin to experience greater body sway upon standing, causing an individual to become more unstable. Visual and somatosensory systems also play a crucial role in our ability to maintain balance. As we age, we experience a loss of tactile sensitivity and proprioception. When our feet and lower extremities become affected, it makes it even more difficult for us to stand upright and ambulate due to impaired sensation. The vestibular system contributes because it is sensitive to two types of information: the position of the head in space and changes in the direction of movement of the head. If the vestibular system becomes impaired, it can become difficult to coordinate movements and causes a decrease in postural stability. Even though one of these systems deteriorates the others may help compensate to a degree, but if nothing is done to halt this process, instability will eventually result.