What Causes Balance Issues in Older Adults

At some point in your life, you’ve lost your balance. Maybe as a child, you weren’t watching where you were going, or you tripped over something as a young adult. As you age, balance issues are more common, but what do these issues mean for you, and how can you address them? 

Understanding Balance Issues

As you get older, the way you walk changes. Not having a proper stride while walking can cause you to lose your balance. Losing your balance is often followed by a range of other symptoms. The way you feel when you lose your balance may be different from how another person feels. After you lose your balance, you may feel faint, nauseous, or unsteady.

People sometimes describe a loss of balance as feeling like you're spinning when you're actually standing still, feeling dizzy without explanation, or feeling like you're floating. Balance issues after 50 years old are often worse when you go from sitting to standing up, walk around, or move your head horizontally or vertically.

Balance issues often lead to feeling dizzy and may be accompanied by nausea. When you lose your balance, the symptoms you feel may last a few minutes or even a few days. If loss of balance begins to negatively impact your life, talk to your doctor.

You may lose your balance because it suddenly feels like the room is spinning or you feel like you're about to pass out. Balance issues are often caused by a condition called vertigo.

What causes vertigo? If you have an inner ear problem like swelling, fluid buildup, or an infection, it can cause vertigo. Your inner ear helps with your sense of balance. Issues with your inner ear can lead to you losing your balance frequently if the condition is not addressed. There may be other factors contributing to vertigo, like vision impairment.

Your doctor will ask questions about the circumstances surrounding your episodes. They may ask you some of the following questions, so it's important to have some answers prepared ahead of time:

  • How do you feel when you lose your balance?
  • What causes you to lose your balance?
  • How long do your symptoms last?
  • How often do you lose your balance?
  • What are some common things that happen when you lose your balance?

Having answers to these questions ahead of time helps your doctor pinpoint a reason for you losing your balance. 

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Why Does Loss of Balance Affect Older Adults?

As you age, your body changes and leaves you at a greater risk for some health conditions. Loss of balance is often a symptom of another health condition instead of being a stand-alone condition that needs treatment. The following health conditions can cause you to lose your balance:

Sudden changes to your blood pressure. With each passing year, your body becomes less efficient at pumping blood through your veins. If you stand up too quickly or make a sudden movement, it causes your blood pressure to drop. If this happens, you may lose your balance for a moment and recover quickly. Symptoms usually fade as your blood pressure returns to normal.

Lack of circulation. When your body isn’t as efficient at pumping blood as it used to be, it slows your overall circulation. Oxygen doesn’t travel as quickly to your brain, muscles, and organs. This may cause sensations of balance loss every once in a while.

Neurological conditions. If you have a health condition like Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, you have a greater risk of losing your balance. If your doctor suspects a more serious health condition, they will pursue a diagnosis and treatment to address your balance issues.

Medications. Read the side effects or talk to your doctor about risks before starting a new medication. Dizziness is a side effect of some medications and can worsen your condition. 

Pay particular attention to anti-seizure drugs, antidepressants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. If you’re taking a medicine for high blood pressure, it may also make you lose your balance if your blood pressure gets too low.

Low iron levels. Iron aids in the creation of red blood cells that carry oxygen through your body. If you regularly have low iron levels, you may be anemic. If anemia is to blame for your loss of balance, you may also feel weak during an episode and have pale skin.

Low blood sugar. If you have diabetes that is controlled by insulin, dizziness occurs when your blood sugar drops suddenly. You may also sweat or feel suddenly anxious.

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Other Considerations

Talk to your doctor. Losing your balance puts you at risk for trips, falls, and injuries. It can interrupt your life and cause anxiety. There are some symptoms that are a cause for greater concern. Seek emergency medical attention if you have: 

  • A sudden headache that is debilitating 
  • Chest pain or tightness 
  • Severe vomiting
  • Numb sensations in your face, arms, or legs 
  • Fainting
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Sudden change in speech patterns
  • Feeling confused
  • Experiencing double vision
  • Seizures
  • Loss of hearing
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 18, 2021

Sources

Sources

Aging and Disease: “Dizziness and Imbalance in the Elderly: Age-related Decline in the Vestibular System.”

American Family Physician: “Gait and Balance Disorders in Older Adults.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dizziness.”

National Institute on Aging: “Balance Problems and Disorders.”

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