How to Prevent One of the Greatest Dangers to the Elderly

It's a problem all of us face as we get older...

By the time we're 55 years old, most of us have had a close call or two where the foot caught on a rug or a stair and we nearly fell. Then we notice the bruises and the bumps stay around a little bit longer. When we're 40 or 45 and lighter on our feet, it was much easier to pick ourselves up and continue. Not so once we're nearing our 60s.

In nursing homes, one of the leading causes of accidental death is due to falling and hitting your head. If you're also on a blood thinner for atrial fibrillation (a heartbeat that conducts electricity too quickly and inefficiently), a fall can easily cause you to bleed into your brain and experience a stroke or even die.

Balance becomes an even bigger aspect of our daily lives. If our age-related changes begin to impact our balance, we can experience some serious problems unless our balance is addressed.

Balance is one of those things that you can't really appreciate until you lose it...

But fear of falling can be both a help and a hinderance.

On the one hand, it can bring your attention to problems that can impact your balance – like changes in your vision or weak muscles.

On the other hand, however, the fear of falling can become unreasonable and may lead you to unnecessarily avoid activities, limit your movement, and eventually restrict your range of motion.

Luckily, there are a few ways that we can work to improve our balance. Today, we're going to focus on one of those methods – Tai Chi. We're also going to talk about some of the reasons why balance can become an issue in the first place.

Good balance relies on the integration of many different sensory and motor systems...

We need our vision to distinguish direction and motion to see and make sense of the space around us. This allows our brain to make decisions about how to move. If you see a clear path, your brain knows that it's free to tell the body to move forward. However, if something is blocking your path or if it's too dark to see clearly, your brain knows it needs to do a little problem solving before you can move forward safely.

We need our vestibular system (inside the ears) to indicate where our body is in relation to other objects and obstacles in our environment. This process is called orientation and works closely in conjunction with our visual system to help our brains make decisions accurately and then execute them by directing our body.

And we need our proprioception to sense where our body is in a space. Some examples that explain the concept of proprioception include being able to touch your nose with your finger when your eyes are closed and knowing whether your feet are on soft grass or hard cement without looking. Proprioception also allows us to execute more than one action at a time without having to think about each individual action separately – like walking and chewing gum at the same time.

For instance, say you're walking across the street and a car starts driving toward you. In that moment, you need to make a quick decision: Do you move faster to reach the other side of the street before the car reaches you? Or do you turn around and head back to the curb where you just were. Depending on your visual perception of the details in this scenario, your orientation to the car and the sidewalk, and your proprioception, you will quickly consider questions like: "How far away is the car?" or "Which sidewalk is closer?" and "How fast is the car moving?"... Using your senses will allow you to make the best decision and keep yourself safe.

We also need muscle strength, joint flexibility, and reaction time. In our theoretical example, your brain is going to direct your body to act as soon as you've decided what to do. Your brain will tell the right muscle groups and joints to perform, as well as how quickly these actions need to be executed.

If all of these systems are not working together properly, we begin to have problems with our balance.

Tai Chi is an incredible way to improve your balance and decrease your fear of falling. Practicing Tai Chi builds muscle control, stability, balance, and flexibility.

Tai Chi focuses more specifically on posture and body alignment than other forms of low-impact exercise. By emphasizing proper structural alignment, a person's center of gravity can shift back to its natural position and allow that person to experience more stability.

Tai Chi is often referred to as "meditation in motion" because it focuses on breathing and moving in a flowing way, while maintaining a particular mental focus.

The theory behind Tai Chi is that a person's movements and breathing are designed to encourage the proper flow of qi (pronounced chee) – their "vital energy" or "life force." If a person's qi is not flowing properly throughout the body, dysfunction and illness will occur at and around the points of blockage.

One of the best things about practicing Tai Chi is that it can be easily adapted to a seated position. Gradually, as a person builds muscle strength and endurance, they can move from a sitting to a standing position if they want, which means people in wheelchairs can also use Tai Chi.

There are five main Tai Chi disciplines, so it's important to choose the right one to suit your needs...

1. Chen (or Chuan) – This is the oldest form of the five styles, developed around the 16th century. It's characterized by quick, forceful movements (like jumps, kicks, and strikes) intermingled with slow, graceful ones. Chen style offers a good cardio workout, rebuilds muscle groups, and improves balance. Each form in this style also has three different practice methods, according to how low a person is able to bend at the knees: low-level is for young people and martial artists, mid-level is for middle-aged people with no injuries, and high-level is for older people with back and knee problems.

2. Yang Developed in 1850, this style improves a person's flexibility by utilizing big, exaggerated movements in a slow and graceful way that expand and contract the body.

3. Wu This style utilizes smaller movements in a medium stance to emphasize extension of the body. By leaning forward and backward, this style does not rely on remaining centered like the other styles do.

4. Sun – This form of Tai Chi borrows from various martial arts and Tai Chi styles. It mimics a graceful dance and incorporates unique footwork and gentle, circular, flowing hand movements. This form emphasizes using the mind to move the body and develops agility.

5. Hao (or Wu/Hao) – This is the least popular of the five forms and the most advanced form of Tai Chi. Hao puts an emphasis on internal qi – focusing to create internal movements that trigger subtle external movements.

It's said that when the mind is focused on one area of the body during Tai Chi practice, the qi will flow into that area. When the qi flows, the power will follow.

Tai Chi is also known to reduce stress and anxiety in a gentle way. Tai Chi is a great practice to develop that can carry you into old age gracefully and with strength. Live the life you want with a little Tai Chi on your side.

What We're Interneting...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 4, 2021