On balance: Lazar explains a little-discussed fundamental fact of aging

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), is a freelance journalist based in Denver and former topic leader on aging for AHCJ. She haswritten for the New York Times, Kaiser Health News, the Washington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, STAT News, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

It’s not easy to write well about the nitty-gritty details of aging – the wear and tear on bones and joints, the deterioration of seeing and hearing, the gradual onset of frailty in barely observable increments.

But everyone encounters this when they’ve lived long enough; physical decline is a fundamental part of the aging experience.

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to judith@healthjournalism.org.

That’s why Kay Lazar of The Boston Globe deserves kudos for her story on balance problems in older adults, a common, seemingly mundane condition that hasn’t received much attention.

The consequences can be serious: when balance is compromised, seniors become at risk of losing their mobility or falling, potentially precipitating a cascade of other medical problems.

Lazar’s explanation of why older people become unsteady on their feet is graceful and easy to understand:

“A person’s sense of balance relies on an exquisite interplay of three regions, your vision, a maze-like structure in the inner ear which includes microscopic cells that resemble little hairs, and the muscles and joints running from your feet, up through your spine, that sense your body’s position.

All three areas send signals to your brain, which processes the information, and helps give you a sense of spatial orientation – your balance.

As we age, eyesight fades, as do our muscles’ ability to sense surroundings. Meanwhile, the hair cells in the inner ear die off and do not regenerate. These declines combine to throw off the signals to your brain about your balance.”

Her description of “four flavors of dizzy” – the feeling of blacking out, unsteadiness, spinning, or lightheadness – almost surely will help older adults and their families recognize symptoms that may require medical assistance.

That’s why a story like this is valuable. By talking openly about a problem that usually passes under the radar screen, it expands our sense of alertness to older people and difficulties they may experience. It makes seniors visible, not invisible as they so often seem to others.

Next time I see an older person hesitate at a curb before stepping down or stand stiffly in a crowd, nervous about moving in tight, confined spaces, I’ll think about Lazar’s article.

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