Do you worry about losing your balance as you get older? It’s perfectly normal to worry about falling, and it does happen more often as people age. Increasing your awareness bolstered by daily exercise can help.
How the fear of falling develops
About one-third of older adults fall annually, says audiologist Julie Honaker, PhD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Vestibular and Balance Disorders Laboratories.
“Those who fall develop a greater fear of falling. But, even those who don’t fall can develop the fear if they have a friend who’s fallen. They know the consequences of the injuries and how it can impact their independence,” she says.
The role of balance issues
Fear may develop as people begin to lose control over their balance. Problems with vision, the inner ear or the sense of touch in a person’s feet and ankles are often at work. These balance issues also can lead to poor muscle control, Dr. Honaker says.
“Those with a fear may have trouble dealing with obstacles. They may fixate on objects and have trouble seeing beyond or around them, so they’re more likely to trip,” she says. “However, those without the fear may deal with things in their path with no problems.”
Awareness counteracts negative thought patterns
Developing fears can set people up for a negative pattern, Dr. Honaker says.
The uncertainty may lead people to withdraw from activities they enjoy. Doing so can worsen their balance and make participation even more difficult. “This all puts them at a greater risk of falling,” she says. “It’s a vicious cycle that can limit people’s independence.”
Some people also tighten their muscles when the feel they’re about to fall. This stiffening can limit a person’s range of motion and make a fall more likely, Dr. Honaker says.
While it’s common to experience such effects, it’s so important to be aware of this tendency and work against it. Do everything you can to continue staying engaged in activities.
Exercise builds strength and confidence
The most important part of managing and alleviating your fear of falling is to start exercising regularly. This directly addresses balance issues, Dr. Honaker says.
Daily exercise can build the strength you need to avoid future falls. Good activities for improving balance include:
- Tai chi
Dr. Honaker also recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Stepping On program.
“These activities get you out and walking in a group setting,” she says. “They build up your confidence so you can actively work on your balance.”
Those with severe balance issues would likely benefit from personalized attention from a physical therapist, she says.
Various devices can also help reduce your risk of falling, including:
- Reachers to help you pick up items without bending over
- Hand rails
- Grab bars
- Raised toilet seats
Improving lighting (including adding night lights) and removing loose carpets and rugs can also help prevent falls at home.
When to talk to your doctor
If the fear of falling is difficult to manage, talk to your primary care physician. It’s especially important to do so if you experience the following:
- Increased fearfulness
- Slow or cautious walk or gait
- Expressed discomfort with formerly enjoyed activities
- Wider gait
- Reduced head movement
Ultimately, Dr. Honaker says, it’s important for older adults to talk to their doctors about the risks and fear of falling. Your doctor can evaluate your personal fall risk so you can address the problem.
“Having this discussion puts you on track with resources that might help you avoid falls,” she says.