By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
When you're young, you can take a lot of things for granted. One of the things you just do as naturally as breathing almost is standing on one leg or walking or even running with your eyes closed. Heck, I can still remember birthday parties when we played "pin the tail on the donkey".
To explain to those of you who are on the sunny side of 40 years old, this is a game in which you wear a blindfold and, using a pin, try to stick a tail on a picture of a donkey. To make it harder, other kids would spin you around a few times until you got dizzy before they then set you loose, blindfolded, to find that board.
Imagine doing that now. If I tried, I would probably end up sticking myself in the eye!
It's amazing to think that we once had such unerring sense of balance. What happened? What happens to us over time? Why does our sense of balance deteriorate so much as we age and can we get it back?
Falling Once, Falling Twice
More than one out of every three of us over the age of 65 will fall this year, according to a 2011 study from The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, Leiden, The Netherlands.
What's more, once you fall, you are more likely to fall again...and again. Why? Part of the reason is that you lose confidence in yourself after you fall, so you're literally not as sure-footed. Another reason is that falling over your ankles tends to loosen the ligaments and joints which decreases their stability and makes you more likely to fall again.
We also fall more as we age because we're just not as fit. To maintain our upright posture requires leg strength and balance. While leg strength is something many of us work on regularly simply by walking or climbing stairs, most of us simply do not work on improving or maintaining our sense of balance.
One of the other reasons we fall as we age is that we tend to take more medications and may of these impair our sense of balance.
One of the reasons that we can play "pin the tail on the donkey" when we're younger is something called "proprioception". Proprioception is knowing where you are, knowing where your legs and arms and body are, relative to the floor, at any point in time even though you don't see them. Proprioception is a body skill you are born with and it peaks at around age 30 and declines after that, unless you do something about it.
And that something is relatively easy. All it takes is standing on one leg.
Over the past 25 years, universities from around the world have confirmed the importance of this simple test for balance to healthy aging.
Standing on One Leg Is Linked to Your Risk for Strokes
People who cannot stand on one leg are at increased risk for stroke, a study has found.
This study, from Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Kyoto, Japan found that people who cannot stand on one leg for at least 20 seconds probably are more likely to also have cerebral small vessel disease. This disease can cause micro-bleeding in your brain.
The study looked at 841 women and 546 men under the age of 70 (average age 67). Participants were asked to stand on one leg up to 60 seconds.
Not being able to stand at least 20 seconds on one leg also means you are at higher risk for developing dementia.
Here are the standards you should aim for, based on a study published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy:
Age Eyes Open Eyes Closed
Under 40 45 seconds 15 seconds
40 to 49 42 seconds 13 seconds
50 to 59 41 seconds 8 seconds
60 to 69 32 seconds 4 seconds
70 to 79 22 seconds 3 seconds
80 to 99 9 seconds 2 seconds