Maintaining steadiness and balance

Author: Gail Hinchion Mancini


Steve Boker lost his grandmother to a hip fracture. A month after falling and breaking her hip, she died from the complications that frequently beset elderly who are immobilized by broken bones.

Today, studying equilibrium and coordination represents a big part of Bokers research as associate professor of psychology.

In a newly outfitted office in the basement of Flanner Hall, Boker tests how well two different sensesone visual, the other involving muscular sensorswork together to signal balance. Studying subjects of varying ages, he examines how those sensory systems perform throughout a persons life.

As we age, the senses become less acute. Its harder to tell where our arms and legs are in space,he says. Proprioception, the muscular signaling system, declines. The system compensates by relying more on visual clues, says Boker.

Younger people seem to have a dual control system whose components talk to each other. For older people, its as though the two pieces collapse into one,Boker explains.

Bokers research underscores what we have long observed among our elders, a lesson emphasized by the death of his grandmother: Unsteadiness is a quality of life issue for the aged. Bokers research could lead to therapies that help older adults maintain or reclaim a dual-control system.

While no complete set of prescriptions is available yet, Bokers learned enough to be able to offer advice to his own mother, and to caretakers of aging adults.

  • If Granny yearns to try yoga, encourage her. Early results in Bokers experiments indicated that older adults who said they did flexibility training such as tai chi demonstrated younger-behaving control systems than others in their age groups.
  • Conversely, be aware that diminished proprioception may cause an elderly friend or relative to become more still or stiff. In turn, that may further diminish their perception. Walking regularly may help both flexibility and strength in the legs, and can improve circulation.
  • Deal with the visuals. Older adults begin to rely more on their vision just as it becomes less reliable. Bifocals and trifocals are common, but they distort visual information about space.I tell my 78-year-old mother: Get separate glasses, one for reading, one for walking around. Youll be more steady during critical times when youre moving around.
  • High-contrast patterns such as striped wallpaper seem to give older people a better grasp of the visual landscape. If he could redesign housing for the elderly, Boker says hed avoid all-beige environments. At the very least, high-contrast strips should be installed on the edges of stair steps.

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