Preventing falls by training our brain

The risk of falling and a deterioration in our ability to walk briskly and securely are two of the more worrying aspects of ageing. While these faults are generally blamed on our legs, there’s plenty of medical evidence suggesting we should be looking more closely at our brains as well.

As the following Australian evidence suggests, falls and mobility issues are a growing problem.

  • 1 in 3 adults aged 65+ fall each year and the risk increases with age (the figure is 45% for 75+)
  • Severity of injury increases with age and is more common in woman
  • Fractures were the most common type of fall-related injury
  • Falls create a downward spiral, as fear of further falls limits mobility

Because the mind and body are so integrated, research has indicated that a decline in mobility and an increased likelihood of falling have been linked to a deterioration in overall cognitive ability, attention, speed and visual processing.

This could all be depressing news except for the fairly recent research which discovered that even ageing brains have plasticity, which means that they can be trained to improve their performance in specific areas. An improvement in our brain’s performance in the areas that control our walking and balance would have the effect of reducing the likelihood of falls and unsteadiness.

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Dr Michael Merzenich, who wrote a chapter on Brain Plasticity in our book “How to stay Healthy, Active and Sharp in Retirement”, heads a company called Brain HQ. This company designs brain training exercises which can improve the performance of specific brain functions. For example, you can do their on- line exercises that can improve your memory, make your brain work faster or improve your visual – spatial system, which is critical to balance.

Brain HQ has developed a number of mental training exercises to help people reduce their chances of falling and to improve their walking speed and mobility. Now if you wanted to make some improvements to your performance in these areas, it requires more than 10 – 15 minutes per week playing computer games. You need to commit to a regular schedule of working on the various exercises – the online system will track your progress.

I found it empowering to discover that brain plasticity meant that we weren’t condemned to a fate of irreversible brain decline. If we are prepared to work at it consistently, there’s plenty of medical evidence to support the claims that even older brains can improve their performance.

This doesn’t mean that you should stop exercising and sit in front of a computer instead. When we’re over 60, exercise is no longer optional.

If you’d like to have a look at the various mental training exercises offered by Brain HQ, go to their web site at – www.brainhq.com

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There are some free exercises there that you can do and if you want to take it further, you can sign up and pay a modest monthly fee. Some of the exercises that are good for walking and balance are – Double Decision, Visual Sweeps & Target Tracker.

 

Have you had a fall before? What happened? Do you think it could have been prevented? Do you exercise? Tell us below.