A Balancing Act

Consider this: The average height for an American woman is about 5 feet, 4 inches, and the average man is 5 feet, 9 inches. The average shoe size for women is 8.5 and 10 for a man. Now, think about how small—in relative terms—the foot is compared to the body it holds upright.

It really is quite a feat—no pun intended.

To add to that, most human bodies are able to make sudden movements, turns and twists, perhaps even inversions, as some people can stand on their hands or on their head and return to an upright position with little difficulty.

Some people, that is. Not all of us.

We use the word “balance” in many contexts, often without thinking about it. We use it a way that is more figurative; there really is no balancing of any physical object in these meanings.

“I need to find balance in my life.”
“My checkbook needs to be balanced.”
“We should all eat a balanced diet.”

Physical balance, however, is a key element in good physical health, and for all other aspects of health as well.

The vestibular system is yet another wondrous system of the human body. It has the greatest responsibility for the maintenance of balance and spatial orientation, and it is located within the inner ear. If you have ever had an inner ear infection, you will likely remember very clearly how it feels when this system goes awry. Dizziness and possible nausea are the most common complaints.

The cerebellum, which sits at the base of the brain, is the neural structure that receives this feedback and commands the body to move accordingly.

The eyes work in tandem with the vestibular system, providing accurate feedback to the cerebellum to determine how and when to move the body.

Except when they don’t.

Motion sickness is a common malady, resulting from a mismatch between what the eyes see and what the vestibular system reports. When there is no physical movement, but the eyes sense movement, the sensation of being carsick, seasick or airsick results.

Like most other systems, the vestibular system requires stimulation in order to develop. Which explains why children enjoy being spun, twirled, pushed high in the swing, turned upside-down on a carnival ride and many other shake-ups that most adults don’t enjoy. Our vestibular systems are fully developed, and cannot tolerate the stimulation that children’s typically can.

I once had a co-worker who delighted in spinning around in her swiveling office chair. She said she felt her vestibular system was not yet fully developed, which, as a female in her late thirties, was not a common thing. It used to make me almost dizzy to simply watch her do it, which was likely that mismatch I wrote of above. My eyes saw movement, but my body didn’t feel it.

Perhaps, as an adult, simply reading this and imagining how it must feel could bring on a bit of dizziness. As young adults, most of us reach a sweet spot, a zenith of vestibular function where everything seems perfectly balanced. Then as we age, something changes—as so many things do with age. Our balance may seem off; we may feel a little less stable on our feet.

Which bring me to the point: balance is not always granted, and we need to act accordingly.

In the United States alone, 32,000 people die annually as a result of falls. Thousands more are injured, and must deal with the aftermath: broken bones—most likely hips with the elderly, and wrists, as we all attempt to catch ourselves as we fall. Head injuries are common, as the head is at risk for being struck when a person falls.

Age often brings a decrease in balance, as with so many other functions. The risk of falling increases with age, but remaining proactive, preventive and positive is key to avoiding falls. As with nearly all accidents, they can be prevented. Awareness of risk is the first step:

  • Obviously, stay off the ice in the wintertime. If you must get out, be sure to have help. Falling in all age groups increases exponentially on ice.
  • If you have pets in your home, know where they are at all times. If they have a tendency to get underfoot, increased vigilance is necessary.
  • If you use oxygen, make sure the tubing is not wrapping around your feet.
  • Don’t pivot too quickly.
  • Use the stairway railings.
  • When getting up in the night to use the bathroom, sit on the edge of the bed for a moment to make sure your equilibrium is sufficient. Sometimes the nighttime is harder, due to having been lying down, asleep, and the darkness as well.
  • Keep your pathways clear of clutter.
  • Throw rugs, while beautiful, increase the risk of falling. Be aware of this risk, and make sure your feet clear them if you have them in your house.
  • Wear smart, comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
  • If your doctor or physical therapist has recommended use of a cane or walker, be sure to use it.

If you suffer from a balance disorder of any kind, it is best to have your medical provider evaluate it, as the causes can be varied. Age can indeed decrease your balance, but there are many other factors as well.

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The human brain is the most wondrous computer. As Command Central of the human body, its structure and placement are carefully engineered to maximize safety and function.

Imagine the brain as a tree. Its trunk is the brainstem, and the leaves hold the different lobes of the brain. The functions most important for survival are nestled deeply in the brainstem. Heartbeat, respiration, swallowing and consciousness are among the functions located deep in the brainstem where there is less chance they can be damaged by accident. Balance is located just above that in the cerebellum, at the base of the brain. In order to function as the upright creatures we are, this ability is heavily insured with its placement at a relatively low level. Without the ability to stand upright and move accordingly, we cannot function as we were designed to do.

In so many ways, life is a balancing act. Make your balance the best act possible.