For older adults, the ability to briefly balance on one foot can predict how long they will live.
People who failed a 10-second balance test while standing on one leg were almost twice as likely to die over the next 10 years, according to a report published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
In contrast to aerobic fitness, flexibility and muscular strength, balance is generally maintained up to the sixth decade of life, after which it declines sharply, the Brazilian researchers found.
Exactly why a loss of balance can predict risk of death is not yet known, said the study’s lead author, Dr. Claudio Gil Soares de Araújo, Sports and Exercise Medicine Specialist and Director of Research and Education at the Exercise Medicine Clinic-CLINIMEX in Rio de janeiro.
But poor balance and musculoskeletal fitness can be linked to frailty in older adults, Araújo wrote in an email.
“Elderly people who fall are at very high risk of major fractures and other associated complications,” Araújo wrote. “This could play a role in the higher mortality risk.”
Checking balance on one foot, even for those few seconds, can be a valuable way of determining a person’s risk of falling. A 2019 report found that deaths from falls are increasing among people age 75 and older in the United States
“Remember that we regularly have to stay in a one-legged stance to get out of a car, go up or down a step or stairs, and so on,” Araújo said.
Araújo and his colleagues have previously explored the link between mobility and longevity. A 2016 study found that people’s ability to sit on the floor and then stand up without using their hands or knees for support could predict their risk of dying over the next six years.
How does equilibrium predict longevity?
To investigate whether a balance test could provide insight into a person’s risk of death from any cause over the next decade, Araújo and his team reexamined data from the 1994 CLINIMEX Exercise cohort study, which examined associations between physical fitness, cardiovascular risk factors and the were at risk of developing poor health and dying.
For the new report, the researchers focused on 1,702 participants aged 51 to 75 – median age 61 – in their first study examination, which measured weight, waist circumference and body fat. The researchers only included people in their analysis who could walk stably.
In the first study, participants were asked to stand on one leg for 10 seconds without holding onto anything for support. Participants, who were allowed three trials, were asked to place the front of the raised food on the back of the supporting leg while keeping their arms at their sides and their gaze straight ahead.
Overall, one in five failed the test.
The researchers found that the inability to pass the test increased with age. In general, people who failed the test were in poorer health than those who passed, with a higher proportion being obese, suffering from cardiovascular disease and unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. Type 2 diabetes was three times more common among those who failed the test than among those who did.
After accounting for factors such as age, gender, BMI, history of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, the researchers found that the risk of death within 10 years was 1.84 times higher in participants who failed the balance test .
The good news, according to Araújo, is: “It’s never too late to improve balance through targeted training. A few minutes a day – at home or at the gym could go a long way.”
Studies like this provide a scientific basis for deciding the types of measurements that help assess how well a person is functioning physically, said Dr. John W. Rowe, Professor of Health Policy and Aging at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
During a physical exam, patients’ heart, lungs, cholesterol, and blood pressure are usually checked. But for the most part, they don’t measure what shape people are in, Rowe said.
If a doctor diagnoses a patient with balance problems, a program to improve fitness and balance may be prescribed.
“And if the doctor asks the patient to do the one-leg stand and the patient says, ‘What’s the use?’ the doctor can say there’s an article showing that this can predict life expectancy,” Rowe said .