Exercise Can Improve Balance For Older Americans

Balance can degenerate with age and health problems. But many therapists say there are exercises that can make a difference for older Americans.

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Balance can become a problem for older Americans and those with health problems. Many therapists say there are exercises that can make a difference.

To find out more, NPR's Patti Neighmond paid a visit to the Balance Disorders Institute of Los Angeles.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Physical therapist Greg Cox guides a tiny 94-year-old lady into a chair.

Mr. GREG COX (Physical Therapist, Balance Disorders Institute of Los Angeles): So this room is our dizzy room.

NEIGHMOND: The room is small and dark. The chair is comfy. Cox adjusts a headset on his patient, Ann Massman(ph).

Dr. COX: So, go ahead and look straight ahead. I'm going to turn the laser on.

NEIGHMOND: A laser pointer is attached to the headset near Massman's ear. Then Cox projects little round targets all over the wall in front of her.

Dr. COX: All right. I want you to point the laser at the moving targets for me, okay?

NEIGHMOND: Massman moved her head quickly to the right, to the left, up, down, to hit the target with the laser beam.

Ms. ANN MASSMAN: When I did it, I just didn't move my head. I just watched it with my eyes. But, you see, now that I do it with my head, that helps me so much.

NEIGHMOND: Cox says it's helping because the exercise strengthens the connection between Massman's eye and inner ear.

Dr. COX: So, if you turn your head, which you see doesn't quite match what you feel, and patients often have a sense of imbalance or dizziness.

NEIGHMOND: This exercise literally retrains the brain. At UCLA, neurologist Robert Baloh says the brain is incredibly flexible and able to compensate when one area starts to fail.

Dr. ROBERT BALOH (UCLA Neurologist): We know that with stroke, that's well documented, that areas of the brain that are wiped out with a stroke. Nearby areas can start to take over some of the function that the damaged area previously was important for.

NEIGHMOND: But balance isn't only a function of the inner ear-eye connection, muscle strength is also involved. Physical therapist Greg Cox says balance means more than having the strength to stand on one foot without falling.

Dr. COX: Most people confuse balance with holding a specific position. But remember, we rarely do that. We're often doing something. We're reaching for our keys or a cup of coffee. So when our patients are balancing, we also have them do something with their upper body - pick something up, put it on a shelf.

Ms. ELAINE LACHMAN: And I can feel it in my arms now.

Dr. COX: Even posture.

NEIGHMOND: Elaine Lachman(ph) is 93 years old. She's fallen a number of times and knows she needs to build her strength to improve her balance. Today, physical therapist Steve Wasserman coaches Lachman as she walks up and down a slanted piece of foam while moving a large plastic ball up over her head and then down below her knee.

Doctor STEVE WASSERMAN (Physical Therapist): Are you doing okay?

Ms. LACHMAN: Yeah, I really am.

Dr. WASSERMAN: Or - last one.

NEIGHMOND: Lachman says that after just a few months of this therapy, she feels more sturdy and ready for an unexpected slip or jerky movement that could put her off balance.

Ms. LACHMAN: I usually like to walk more because I didn't have to think so much about being careful. But as the years go by, I feel that I have to look and watch. I keep saying LL to myself: look and lift.

NEIGHMOND: Balance training, along with regular daily exercise - jogging, walking, tennis or swimming - is really critical as people age, according to UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh.

Dr. BALOH: The truth is, the older we get, it's more important to become a fanatic about exercise than when you were younger. You have to be - you have to be totally dedicated to it and do it on a very consistent, regular basis.

NEIGHMOND: Baloh recommends 30 minutes a day of exercise. It's a goal 93-year-old Elaine Lachman is well on her way to.

Ms. LACHMAN: Movement is absolutely an answer. I call walking my lifeline.

NEIGHMOND: Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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