Reflexive balance training prevents falls for older adults

Living and Aging Well: Column by Tom Virden
Posted 12/4/18

Older adults don’t typically fall when they are focusing on just one thing. They tend to fall because they get distracted and their reflexes aren’t fast enough to prevent the fall. Impairment of …

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Reflexive balance training prevents falls for older adults

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Older adults don’t typically fall when they are focusing on just one thing. They tend to fall because they get distracted and their reflexes aren’t fast enough to prevent the fall. Impairment of “reflexive balance” happens as we age and there isn’t enough cognitive bandwidth to manage two tasks at the same time, such as walking while answering the phone.

The good news is that many documented scientific findings show that reflexive balance can be retrained and improved. The effective technique for this is “dual task” training, where a person is given a cognitive task to do at the same time as a balance task. This cognitive task can be math, word games, matching problems or trivia — the key is to engage the person so they don’t pay attention to the balance task such as doing short lunges, standing on one foot, or tandem stands (standing with one foot in front of the other like you’re on a tightrope).

This stimulates the rebuilding of synapses in the brain to the point where the participant has regained sufficient cognitive bandwidth for both tasks. Brain plasticity improvements work just as effectively in seniors as young adults, which is why this type of balance training is highly effective.

So, here’s the problem. Most of today’s balance classes train “executive function” balance. You may have been to one of them, where 20 or 30 people follow an instructor and perform a series of exercises for stability, strength and movement. For an hour class members are asked to concentrate on their balance exercises. While any exercise is beneficial (strengthening muscles, etc.), they don’t improve reflexive balance, so participants are just as likely to fall when they are distracted in a real-life situation. And an hour class can be exhausting, so many stop going, especially if they don’t feel they are as fit as the other participants. The ones who need it the most often don’t get the balance training they need.

Dual task balance training can be done in short bursts every day — it is recommended that the user do it three to five times per week for just 10 minutes. And because the cognitive challenges are fun and entertaining, the training feels less arduous. In fact, when a cognitive challenge is paired with a physical exercise, it feels like you’re doing the exercises for just half as much time as they are actually taking. So older adults are more apt to continue the training and make it a daily habit, which is when everyone wins!

If you feel like your balance has declined and you worry about falling, it’s encouraged that you find a program that trains the brain as well as the body, and you will get more benefit, while having more fun at the same time.

This column is hosted by the Seniors’ Council of Douglas County. Please join us for our next meeting on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Bonaventure Senior Living, 1855 Low Meadow Blvd., Castle Rock. Our presentation and community conversation will begin at 10:15 a.m. This month’s topic is “The Mind-Body Connection,” which includes a fun-to-use smartphone application. Come try it out and see how it works! Nathan Estrada with Nymbl Science will be our guest speaker. For more information, go online to MyDougCoSeniorLife.com, email DCSeniorLife@douglas.co.us or call 303-663-7681.

Tom Virden is a co-founder of Nymbl Science and heads business development for the company. To learn more about combining technology and science to prevent falls, visit www.NymblScience.com.

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