Most children fall once a week or so -- spilling off their bikes, flying off the skateboard, tripping when running -- but they suffer nothing more than scraped knees and a few tears before bouncing back into activity. For elderly adults, though, falls typically result in far more trouble than band-aids and reassurances. In fact, for those over 65, falls can be the short path to disability and death. The fact is that balance rapidly declines as people age, and so each year, one out of every three adults over the age of 65 experiences a traumatic fall. Because bones in older people are far more fragile, even minor falls can result in fractures. More elderly people die from falling each year than from any other type of injury. For those between the ages of 65 and 69, one out of 200 will fracture a hip falling within the year; and that figure goes up to one out of 10 for those over 85. Twenty-five percent of those who suffer a fractured hip end up dying within six months, while half end up in nursing homes, never to return to independent living.
Given these facts, it's obvious that cultivating good balance should be a must for the elderly. The good news is that several things can help with that including exercising to music, according to a new study involving 134 elderly people known to be prone to falling.
Research director Dr. Andrea Trombetti of the University Hospitals and Faculty of Medicine of Geneva, in Switzerland, chose a pool of mostly female participants (96 out of the 134, to reflect the fact that more women than men become disabled from falling), with an average age of 75 years old. Subjects randomly got assigned to one of two groups. The first group spent six months taking a musical exercise course that met for just an hour once weekly. The second group carried on with normal activities without taking the course. After six months, the subjects taking the exercise course suffered half the number of falls compared with the other group (24 falls for those taking the exercise versus 54 for the others). Those subjects in the control group got their shot, though, because after six months, they, too, got enrolled in the musical exercise program. Sure enough, their rates of falling sharply declined at that point. Those who went through the program also increased their average walking speed and length of stride, and showed improved balance overall.
Other studies have found that exercise improves balance, but the dramatic results achieved in this research may have to do with the type of program the subjects participated in, according to the study directors. The course utilized an exercise technique known as Dalcroze eurhythmics, which involves increasingly complex movements performed to music. In a typical class, the participants would start with simple movement such as walking in time to piano music, and then change movement as the music changed, sometimes incorporating objects like balls or percussion instruments. The approach takes its name from Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, who believed listeners could understand music more fully through moving to it. Experts contend that it's the "motor-cognitive connection" that improves balance -- moving while concentrating on an object or thinking about how to change to match a new rhythm.
For those who simply don't have rhythm, tai chi apparently also works wonders. †In one study involving 256 elderly participants, half took tai chi classes three times a week and the other half took stretching classes. After six months, the tai chi group had 28 recorded falls versus 74 in the stretching group -- and you can bet if there had been a control group that remained inactive, the number of falls would have been far higher than in either of these groups. Like eurythmics, tai chi involves synchronized movements that engage a mind-body connection and multitasking -- moving while concentrating on breathing or an image. Similar results have been found for those participating in yoga classes as well as ballroom dancing.
As mentioned earlier, any type of exercise cuts injuries from falls in the elderly. Studies have found that those who do exercise of any type suffer 13 percent fewer falls. Vitamin D also makes a big difference -- actually, a bigger difference than random exercise. Those taking vitamin D supplements in one study reduced falls by 17 percent. Getting out in the sun for some sort of synchronized exercise like tai chi, then, seems like a perfect solution. (But remember, building bones involves much more than just taking vitamin D supplements.)
Ironically, many elderly people don't exercise precisely because they fear falling, according to Amy Ashmore of the American Council on Exercise. Ashmore says, "As we age, many changes occur that affect our balance. For many people, these changes are scary, and for that reason many older people are afraid to exercise." Her colleague, Dr. William Hall of the University of Rochester, adds that another big deterrent may be vanity. He says many of the women he works with consider it unfeminine to exercise, and also, don't want to be seen in lycra. He suggests more modest exercise clothing, and says that the social aspect of activities like dancing can help patients to overcome some of that resistance.
Study after study shows benefit after benefit to be derived from exercise -- better balance, improved cognition, lowered weight, less disease, better mood, fewer colds, longer life -- and so it's a no-brainer that no matter your age, incorporating an exercise regimen is essential. The subjects in the first study cited above only exercised an hour weekly and yet reaped huge benefits. Exercising an hour daily ups the benefits exponentially, as I've written at length in the past.
But for maximum benefit, it's crucial to develop a routine that incorporates all of the major types of exercise: cardio/aerobic/interval, strength training, weight bearing, stretching, resistance breathing, and balance exercises.
To learn more about how to naturally reverse aging, visit our Anti-Aging Program for step-by-step instructions.