The study involved 1,702 elderly people 51 to 75 living in Brazil, who were asked to balance on one leg without support during an initial check. Researchers told participants to place the front of the free foot behind the standing leg, keep their arms at their sides, and their eyes staring straight ahead. Up to three attempts on each foot were allowed.
Being able to balance on one leg is important for older people for a number of reasons, and it also reflects broader levels of fitness and health, said study author Dr Claudio Gil Araújo of the Exercise Medicine Clinic – CLINIMEX – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“We regularly need… one-leg posture, to get out of a car, go up or down a step or stairs, etc. Not having this ability or being afraid to do it is probably linked to loss of autonomy and, therefore, less exercise and the snowball begins,” he explained.
Bad balance and longevity
The study participants had an average age of 61, and two-thirds of them were men. About 1 in 5 failed to balance on one leg for 10 seconds on initial examination.
The researchers followed the participants after the initial workup for a period of seven years, during which time 123 – 7% – of those studied died. The proportion of deaths among those who failed the test (17.5%) was significantly higher than that of deaths among those who could balance for 10 seconds (4.5%).
The study found that for those unable to complete the balance test, there was an 84% higher risk of death from any cause. and this link remained even when other factors – including age, gender, BMI, and pre-existing conditions or health risks such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes – were taken into account.
However, the researchers were unable to include other variables in their analysis such as recent history of falls, physical activity pattern, exercise or sports participation, diet, smoking and the use of medications that may interfere with balance.
The research was observational and does not reveal cause and effect. The study did not examine possible biological mechanisms that could explain the link between poor balance and longevity.
Dr Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, said the research was interesting but not definitive.
“As a standing leg requires good balance, related to brain function, good muscle strength and good blood circulation, it probably integrates the muscular, vascular and cerebral systems, so it’s an overall test of future mortality risk – albeit rude,” said Sattar, who was not involved in the study.
“If someone can’t do the 10 seconds and is worried, they should think about their own health risks,” he said.
“They might try to make positive lifestyle changes like walking more, eating less if they realize they can do better – most underestimate the importance of lifestyle to health,” did he declare. “But they could also consult their doctor if, for example, they haven’t had risk factors measured for cardiovascular disease or other chronic diseases such as diabetes.”
In general, those who failed the test were in poorer health and included a higher proportion of people who were obese and/or had heart disease, high blood pressure and unhealthy blood fat profiles, the study found. Type 2 diabetes was also more common among those who did not pass the test.
The study took place between 2009 and 2020 and was part of a larger research project that began in 1994.
Failure to complete the balance test increased with age, more or less doubling at 5-year intervals between ages 51 and 55 and ahead. More than half (about 54%) of study participants aged 71 to 75 were unable to take the test, compared to 5% in the youngest age bracket who were unable to do so. .
There were no clear trends in deaths, or differences in causes of death, between those who were able to get tested and those who weren’t.
Araújo said balance can be dramatically improved with specific training, and it’s something he’s worked on with patients involved in a medically supervised exercise program. However, he said he did not yet have the data to assess whether improved balance influenced longevity.
If you want to test your own ability to balance on one leg for 10 seconds, Araújo advised you to stand close to a wall, table or other person for support.