Several years ago, wellness examinations were introduced into medical practices as a way of detecting possible health risks, especially among an older population. It made and makes sense. Detecting high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or blood glucose, and too low levels of essential nutrients meant that interventions could be started to prevent a worsening of the individual’s health and quality of life. But do these assessments really measure the wellness of the individual?
Consider falling. Falling is a common risk factor for older people, and now that the Baby Boomer population is in that category of older Americans the incidence of falling will predictably increase. The loss of bone and muscle mass and balance that accompany aging certainly increase the risk of tripping over obstacles that might not even register a slight stumble in a younger individual. And unfortunately 30 to 40 percent of people 65 and older may trip and fall. The effect of a fall is not a tumble and, “Don’t worry, I am not hurt.” About half of these falls cause injury that becomes more serious the older the individual.
Thus the wellness assessment should include detection of physical deficits that might make the patient vulnerable to falling. If a decline in balance or uneven gait is detected before injury from falling occurs, a “prescription” for therapeutic exercises can be offered so these conditions can be helped. This would be similar to a physician making sure a patient received nutritional advice if blood tests showed pre-diabetes or early signs of iron deficiency. But according to guidelines from American and British Geriatric societies, no assessment of risk from falling will be made unless the patient has already fallen or complains of feeling unsteady while walking. If one is lucky or unlucky enough to have fallen (excuse the pun) into this category, then he or she is sent to someone for evaluation of walking and balance.
But why wait until there is a problem? If a patient was pre-diabetic based on fasting blood sugar levels, should a doctor wait until the symptoms of diabetes appears before starting treatment?
Your physician does not have to be a physical therapist or certified personal trainer to assess whether you have poor balance or impaired walking and need help to improve these functions.
The test to measure balance is simple. For example:
- Can you stand on one leg and bend the other 45 degrees or place it against the calf of the standing leg? Can you do this on each leg for 30 seconds?
- Can you walk ten steps with the heel of your front foot touching the toe of your back foot? (This is harder than it seems…)
- Step to the right with your weight on your right foot. Bring your left foot next to your right foot. Then do the same with the opposite feet. Slowly.
There are other similar balance tests that are also used as exercises to improve balance.
The results of a balance test can be surprising. A friend who had an ankle operation found that even though her ankle had healed and the muscle mass of her leg restored, she had much more trouble balancing on the operated leg than the other years after the operation. Another who had stopped going to yoga classes because of scheduling conflicts and who could stand on one foot seemingly forever was horrified to find that after a couple of years not doing balance exercises she had trouble standing on one foot for less than a minute.
Gait is a fancy term for moving your feet while walking. Gait speed is a measure of how quickly someone can walk from a specific point to another specific point. Measurements of gait needs a bit more space than a balance test, and if problems are detected, a thorough evaluation, including walking on a treadmill and the walking videoed for later analysis by a physical therapist. In the initial test, a distance is measured out and the individual asked to walk at a normal gait /speed to the end point. This is timed and often repeated to get an accurate result. Gait speed is then calculated by dividing the distance by the time it takes to cover it.
So, if you walked 12 meters (one meter equals three feet) in 12 seconds, than you would walk one meter (or three feet) per second. Although gait certainly can slow down simply with aging—a 90 year-old probably walks more slowly than a 50 year-old—other factors such as being unable to pick up one’s feet (shuffling), perceptual problems, poor balance and muscle weakness can slow down the pace of walking in an otherwise healthy person.
These measurements of balance and gait do not require the services of a personal trainer or physical therapist. They can even be made at home. They don’t take time. Indeed, they probably require less time than one typically spends in the waiting room when the doctor is behind in his or her appointments. But they should be made under medical supervision because they can reveal problems that are more medically complex than aging or lack of exercise. Loss of balance and abnormally slow gait can be due to inflammation or other inner ear problems, nerve damage to the legs, vision problems, muscle weakness, side effects of some medications and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s. The underlying causes must be addressed.
Balance is something we don’t notice we have lost until we do. All of us must find out how vulnerable we are before that first fall.
“Assessment and Management of Fall Risk in Primary Care Settings,” Phelan, E., Mahoney, J., Voit, P., and Stevens, J., Med Clin North Am. 2015 Mar; 99(2): 281–293.
“Gait Speed as a Measure in Geriatric Assessment in Clinical Settings: A Systematic Review,” Peel, N., Kuys, S., Klein, K., The Journals of Gerontology: 68; 2013: 39-46.