Visual and Vestibular Balance Issues Affecting Older Adults: What You Can Do to Stay On Your Feet

Simply standing up is harder than it looks! When you add in shifting your weight, stepping, navigating hazards and more, it’s no wonder that so many older adults struggle with balance. Because balance issues can lead to falls, it’s important to understand why you might be struggling with balance. With that knowledge, you can notice potential problems and resolve them before you stumble or tumble.

Your vision and your balance

How well you see influences your balance. If you can’t see well, you may miss potential hazards or spend so much energy trying to see better that you trip and fall. How you see, referred to as “visual processing,” also is important. This has to do with how your brain takes in and organizes the information that comes in through your eyes. If you aren’t processing fast enough or your brain isn’t noting hazards accurately, you could fall even if your eyesight is 20/20.

The vestibular system and balance issues

Your body’s vestibular system helps you determine where you are in space. Much of this system relies on a complex structure of bones, hairs and fluid in your inner ear. If any of that gets damaged, you may experience dizziness or be unable to tell up from down. When you don’t know where you are in space, it’s a lot easier to fall. You may not even realize that you aren’t upright until you find yourself on the ground!

Vision and the vestibular system working together

The vestibular system and your visual processing need to work together to keep you upright. Together, they facilitate tasks ranging from eye-hand coordination to your ability to navigate around or over obstacles and move on surfaces that are not flat and solid and more. People with vestibular problems report that they limit their activities. Studies further show that these people are more likely to need help with daily life functions and and to become depressed and anxious. 

In designing a physical therapy regimen to solve these types of balance issues, Heather Lane physical therapist Dr. Patrick Donovan takes a dual approach that considers your vestibular and visual systems together. He says a typical regimen includes:

  • Internet-based exercise programs. You’ll access a set of exercises online and follow along at your own pace to complete the program.
  • Exergaming programs. You’ll use a gaming console or a computer to follow a series of exercises. You’ll be able to watch as the exercise is performed, and the console can determine whether you are doing it correctly. These games teach you to keep your gaze stable while you are moving and also help you to improve movement patterns. 
  • Vestibular rehabilitation. This includes eye therapy, strengthening good posture and other exercises that, typically, are completed with the help of a physical therapist. 

If you are struggling with balance issues, it’s time to look at your vision and your vestibular system. Your medical provider and your physical therapist can help you recover full functionality so you can get back to doing the activities you love!

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