Go ahead, try it. Look straight ahead, place one foot behind the other and then balance on that one foot. Did you topple in less than 10 seconds? If so, your days may be numbered — at least that's what the data from a new study published online this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests.
So, if you can't, is it really something you should worry about? That depends on several factors, the researchers say.
Why Was the Study Conducted?
As we approach our 40s, we gradually lose aerobic fitness, muscle strength and flexibility. But our balance remains relatively stable, so to speak, until we reach our sixth decade. And then our balance starts to go downhill rather quickly.
Without good balance, people can fall. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than one in three people 65 years of age or older falls each year. Aging also makes bones more brittle, which means they are more prone to breaking when falls do occur. Yet, balance assessments aren't generally included in routine physicals or wellness checks. A group of researchers set out to find whether testing a person's balance might be a reliable indicator of a person's risk of death over the next decade.
What Did the Study Involve?
The study relied on people who had enrolled in the CLINIMEX Exercise cohort study (set up in 1994), which assessed the relationships between measures of physical fitness, variations in exercise and cardiovascular risk factors with morbidity (disease) and mortality (death). The study also collected data such as weight, skin fold thickness and waist size along with a medical history. Participants were asked to stand on one leg for 10 seconds without support.
The scientists narrowed the field of participants to those who were 51 to 75 years old at the time of their first CLINIMEX checkup, between Feb. 2009 and Dec. 2020. They also culled out those with an unstable gait, leaving a total of 1,702 participants, 68 percent of whom were men.
The balance assessment was also standardized. Participants were asked to put the front of their free foot behind their standing leg and keep their arms by their sides and their gaze fixed straight ahead. Each volunteer was given three attempts on either foot to nail the test.
What Did the Researchers Find?
The results showed that 20.5 percent of participants failed the balance assessment and that the likelihood of failing roughly doubled at every five-year increment from the age of 51-55 onwards.
The percentage of each age group that failed the tests is as follows:
- 5 percent among the 51-55 age group
- 8 percent among the 56-60 age group
- Slightly less than 18 percent among the 61-65 age group
- Nearly 37 percent among the 66-70 age group
- 54 percent among the 71-75 age group
This means that the risk of falling among the 71-75 age group was 11 times greater than the 51-55 age group.
But the real shocker came when the researchers saw that the proportion of deaths among those who failed the test compared to those who passed was significantly higher — 17.5 percent compared to 4.5 percent, a difference of nearly 13 percent. (The median follow-up period was seven years.)
It should be noted that those who failed the balance assessment were also in poorer health and had conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and unhealthy blood fat profiles. Those who failed the test who also had type 2 diabetes were also three times (38 percent) more likely to die than those who failed the test who did not have diabetes (13 percent).
After accounting for age, sex and other underlying conditions, researchers concluded that older people who are unable to stand on one leg for 10 seconds had an 84 percent increased risk of death from any cause within the next 10 years. That's almost double the risk of those who could perform this exercise.
Am I Going to Die Because I Failed a Balance Assessment?
Before you start getting your financial affairs in order, keep in mind that this study has some limitations. For one, it's an observational study, so cause-and-effect cannot be established. Furthermore, all participants were white Brazilians. The results may not be the same among participants from other ethnicities and nations, the researchers cautioned. Plus, the study didn't consider other possible factors among volunteers that could impact balance such as a history of falls, physical activity levels, smoking and drugs.
Regardless, the researchers wrote that adding a balance assessment to routine wellness checks for middle-aged and older adults could be "a useful complement."