By Brenda Stickley 10 January 2017
Falls can happen at any age but they become increasingly common and far more likely to cause injury after the age of 551.
Consider these statistics. Approximately 1 in 3 people aged 65 and over fall each year, with the risk increasing proportionally with age. Of these, 22-60% suffer injuries, 10-15% suffer serious injuries, 2-6% suffer fractures, 0.2-5% suffer hip fractures. Half of all ACC claims and costs in this age group are the result of falls.2
A fall can be a life-changer. Along with serious injury or fractures, people can face a loss of independence and a big knock to their confidence. A heightened fear of falling can increase their risk of falling again because they reduce their activities and lose strength, coordination and balance skills because of it.
A relative of one of my clients fell over crossing the road in central Wellington earlier this year. As a young woman, she had played competition netball so her balance and physical agility had always been her strengths. It would have been 35 years since she’d had a fall of any kind, but when she hit the tarmac that day, face first, a growing fear was fully realised. Now in her late fifties, she had gained weight over many years and had become aware of how she now used her body less and less. She knew she was less agile than she used to be, but had secretly hoped that her once excellence balance would save her. Unfortunately, it no longer knew how. She suffered cuts and bruises to her face, shoulder, hip and knee. But the worst of it was, she couldn’t get up off the ground.
As toddlers, we fall as part of the learning of how not to fall. The repeated experience of bringing ourselves upright in gravity only to fall again, allows our brains to figure out how to keep us standing on two feet; and then on one foot after the other as we teach ourselves to walk. We must learn to find our balance. It is a very complex process and takes a lot of time and practice to master. At this age our brain is like a sponge absorbing sensory information and forming up to two million connections every second. Our brain is being shaped by our experiences.
At two years of age, we have over one hundred trillion synapses, double the number an adult has3. The brain has far more connections than it needs, so a process of “pruning” begins. Over our childhood, teenage and early adult years, our brain continually trims back its connections. The synapses that are not used become weakened and are eventually eliminated. What started as a brain with infinite possibilities ends up as a brain with fewer but stronger connections that correspond to what we have been exposed to and what is useful to us in our environment and life. The process of building a human brain to maturity takes up to 25 years. By that time, 50% of our synapses will have been pruned4.
When we reach our forties and fifties, we notice that there are some serious changes going on and we begin to stop taking our health for granted. If we’re listening to ourselves properly, the encroaching aches and pains, rigidities, movement limitations and other unpleasant manifestations of the aging process and dis-ease are a wake-up call. We might look at our parents’ generation to see what’s ahead but the baby boomer generation has a different perception of aging. Unlike our parents’ generation, we expect to be physically active in our sixties and seventies and older. But does our reality fit our expectations?
All those fewer-but-stronger connections that we were left with when our brain matured at age 25 turned us into creatures of habits. The hard wiring of patterns in our brain switched to auto-pilot mode – a good thing because it means we don’t have to think about how to do everything, it just happens. However, for a lot of us, it also meant we stopped learning new ways of moving and thinking.
We may have also given up some activities over the years, so we lost the ability to do those too. To add insult to injury, we may discover that the movement that was hard wired into our brains was not the most efficient way to use our bodies. Years of poor posture and poor use of self in action now contributes to the muscle tensions, pain, wearing out of joints, and other movement issues that oldies suffer from. Emotional and physical traumas can also affect us in ways we are often not aware of, including our balance. So, over the years, our ability to balance can be adversely affected, making the risk of falling greater.
Just because falls are common in the 55+ age group, it doesn’t mean that they are inevitable. You can do something to significantly reduce your level of risk, at any age. Preferably don’t wait until you are 55, but if your 55th birthday has already come and gone, then don’t waste any more time!
The good news is our brain and nervous system continue to learn throughout their life span. The brain functions on two basic rules. (1) Connections that fire together, wire together. (2) Connections that we don’t use, we lose. Neuroscientists now recognise that our brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity. This fundamental brain property is called “neuroplasticity.” Neuro refers to nerve cells in our brain and nervous system; and plastic means changeable, malleable, modifiable5. We can unlearn old habits and create new ones. Anyone can do this. Age and physical ability don’t affect your ability to learn to regain and improve function. These are fundamental principles of the Feldenkrais Method®.
In a Feldenkrais session, the whole body and brain are engaged in simple but powerful movement sequences that can re-groove your brain’s neuropathways. Balance is a complex function of the brain requiring communication between its different parts so it can prevent you from falling. The brain sends messages to your muscles to make subtle adjustments in your skeletal structure, moment to moment, so you move while keeping balanced in gravity. Improving brain function with awareness through movement is a very effective way to improve your balance.
At age 63, I have been able to achieve a level of agility that I haven’t had since my active teenage years. This is despite a pelvic fracture in 2005 which left me with a misshaped pelvis. One of the things I’m very thankful to Feldenkrais for is that I never feel concerned about falling. I have learnt the “feeling” of being balanced and can move with ease and confidence doing anything I choose to.
Eagleman, D (2015) The Brain. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. p5-33
Doidge, N (2007) The Brain that changes itself. New York: Penguin Books
Wildman, F (2010) Change your age. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press