- Being able to balance on one leg for 10 seconds may be an indicator of good overall health.
- The research team recruited more than 1 000 participants in Brazil and tested their balancing ability.
- Deaths among those who failed the balancing test were higher.
The inability to balance on one leg for 10 seconds in later life may indicate an increase in the risk of death – from any cause – within the following decade, according to new research.
Based on these findings, it may be useful to include a simple balance test in routine check-ups for people in middle and old age, the study researchers say.
The team recruited 1 702 participants in Brazil, aged 51 to 75. About two-thirds of the participants were men.
They were asked to stand on one leg. The front of the free leg had to be placed behind the standing leg, and they had to keep their arms by their sides while looking straight ahead.
Each participant got three attempts to perform the task and were allowed to stand on either leg.
Around one in five participants failed to balance on one leg for 10 seconds at the initial checkup, and this number increased with age. Importantly, there was a higher proportion of people suffering from obesity, heart disease, and hypertension among those who failed the task. Type 2 diabetes was also more common in this group.
Following the checkup, the participants were monitored for seven years. During this time, 123 (7%) of the participants died. According to the researchers, the number of deaths among participants who failed the test was significantly higher than deaths among those who were able to balance for 10 seconds.
For those who were unable to complete the balance test, there was an 84% higher risk of death from any cause, even when other factors were considered, including age, sex, BMI, and preexisting health conditions.
While the study doesn't reveal cause and effect, the results from these observations make them practical for routine clinical use, the researchers said.
Balance in clinical exams
Balance tends to be reasonably well preserved until after the mid-50s, after which it starts to diminish quickly, increasing the risk for falls and other adverse health outcomes, the researchers say.
Falls are considered the second leading cause of unintentional injury-based deaths globally. Each year, around 684 000 individuals die from falls globally and of these, over 80% occur in low- and middle-income countries. Earlier research has also linked the inability to balance on one leg to a greater risk of cognitive decline.
“Balance assessment is not routinely incorporated in the clinical examination of middle-aged and older individuals … [but] the availability of simple, inexpensive, reliable and safe balance assessment tools that could help predict survival would potentially be beneficial to health professionals evaluating and treating older adults,” the authors say.
There is considerable evidence that loss of balance is an indicator of deteriorating health, but some exercise interventions may improve balance. Study author, Dr Claudio Gil Araújo at Exercise Medicine Clinic (CLINIMEX) in Brazil, told CNN that a person’s balance could be substantially improved by specific training, and that this was something he incorporates in medically supervised exercise programmes with patients.
The study appears in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.