Growing older doesn't mean one has to live a life out of balance.
And while balance issues tend to be associated with older adults, teens, college athletes and other seemingly healthy young adults can encounter dizziness and unsteadiness, too.
Two years ago, as runner Aric Cherry prepared for his final cross-country season at Southwestern College in Winfield, he found he couldn't walk a straight line. "I woke up one morning and I thought my apartment was tilted and I couldn't walk straight to save my life," he said.
On a recent day, 25-year-old Kristopher Kidwell was seeing Philip Harris, an ear, nose and throat specialist with the Wichita Clinic, about his out-of-balance episodes following a short fishing vacation in Canada.
According to the National Institutes for Health, 90 million Americans, or 42 percent of the population, will complain about dizziness or balance problems to their doctor during their lifetime. About 40 percent of Americans age 40 and older have balance problems.
And for the older population, problems with balance can affect quality of life, said Harris, who often sees elderly patients complaining of balance issues.
More than a third of people age 65 or older fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Balance-related falls account for more than one-half of accidental deaths among the elderly, according to a 2009 article in an American Medical Association journal.
Staying balanced is the result of various systems within the body, from one's eyes and ears to one's muscles, joints and brain working together. Changes in any of these systems, along with other factors, can cause a balance disorder.
Our sense of balance comes primarily from within the labyrinth — the maze-like structure in the inner ear that sends signals to tell your body if it's leaning, standing still or moving, according to experts at Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital.
Another key player is the vestibulo-ocular reflex, or VOR, which runs between the eye, inner ear and brain and is one of the fastest reflexes in the body, said Theresa Huslig, a Via Christi physical therapist who specializes in vestibular therapy.
When the VOR slows down, as it had in Cherry's case, it can cause balance problems. There are exercises to counter VOR problems.
Our body's physical condition also plays a major role in staying balanced.
Michael Rogers, professor and chairman of the human performance studies department at Wichita State University, has been studying balance and aging factors for the past 12 years. Through WSU's Center for Physical Activity and Aging, community members can take a class using stretch bands and other tools to help improve strength and balance.
"Our participants show a 20 to 25 percent improvement after being in the program for three months," said Rogers, the center's research director. Participants also report falling less.
"We don't totally eliminate falls, but we've reduced them significantly," said Rogers, noting a 30 to 40 percent reduction among participants.
Rogers' wife, Nicole, a member of WSU's gerontology faculty, oversees a similar class at the Wichita Downtown Senior Services Center.
Getting to the bottom of an imbalance
According to Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital experts, there are more than 200 conditions that may produce symptoms of dizziness, vertigo or a balance problem. Being on four or more prescription medications, for example, can be a risk factor. So can experiencing a head trauma, a stroke or even a severe inner ear infection. Even poor posture can put one at risk.
Kidwell, the vacationing fisherman, was told a change in his diet and dehydration were the probable causes of his recent bout with imbalance, after Harris' questioning and an audiologist's testing ruled out other problems. After a couple of weeks of making healthier food choices, drinking plenty of water and getting adequate sleep, Kidwell reported he hadn't had any more out-of-balance symptoms.
At Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital, patients can be tested in various ways to help determine the cause of a balance disorder. In one test, for example, the patient wears video goggles that record eye movements while sitting in a chair that swivels side to side.
"We look at the whole picture of what impairments they have and what is affecting their balance," said Mary Horsch, the facility's audiology coordinator. Since audiologists are trained to work with the whole inner ear, dealing with balance issues is a common part of their job.
Most of the hospital's balance disorder patients are 50 years and older, because with aging come risk factors such as macular degeneration, knee replacements, and even an increased fear of falling, said physical therapist Barb Newby.
Among Via Christi's patients, the two most common causes of a balance disorder are an acute inner ear inflammation and tiny calcium carbonate crystals that have become dislodged from one part of the inner ear, Horsch said.
The crystals usually can be put back in place through a quick maneuver, said audiologist Dena Hall, who is on Horsch's staff.
Anyone suffering from dizziness, balance issues or frequent falls should see their doctor. Even if one has been treated in the past, the conditions causing the problem can change.
Adults who want to improve or regain their sense of balance can participate in two community classes. The classes are part of ongoing studies on balance and aging by Wichita State University researchers.
Center for Physical Activity and Aging
Strength classes focusing on functional fitness meet at 6:30 and at 7:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Heskett Center through Dec. 8. A balance training class meets at 7 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Dec. 9. The classes incorporate the use of therapeutic stretch bands. Persons of all ages may join the classes.
Cost is $50 and includes pre- and post-session assessments of one's physical ability, a bone density test, and access to the WSU Heskett Center. For more information, call Nick Walton, Center for Physical Activity and Aging coordinator, 316-978-5150.
Downtown Senior Services Center
A strength and balance training class meets from 11 a.m. to noon Mondays and Wednesdays, through Dec. 13, at the center, 200 S. Walnut. The class is open to those 55 and older, with a $10 donation. The class also includes pre- and post-assessments and balance testing. For more information, call the WSU gerontology program at 316-978-6517.