Believe it or not, falls are the number one reason for death and injury among people 65 years old and older. That said, balance and stability- the factors that help prevent falls- are crucial to all of us as we go through our day and is often what defines the success of an athlete.
Whether we fall or not is a complex process of balance and stability that involves three different mechanisms that help link the brain to the surrounding environment. Most of us are familiar with the visual system, recognizing it as how we take in information from the outside world and transmit it to the brain. There is also the vestibular system which takes into account how the head is moving; it is located in the inner ear. Less well known is the proprioceptive system; it integrates how body parts are oriented relative to each other. It sounds abstract but is as vital to our function as the first two.
Because the vestibular system becomes less sensitive with age, older individuals end up relying on the visual system which- relative to the vestibular system- tends to process information more slowly, putting them more at risk for falls.
Historically, falls have been attributed to "tripping" and associated with extrinsic factors. A recent three year study; however, reveals that the biggest reason for falls is far more intrinsic and is associated with incorrect weight shifting that occurs with leaning to get up or sitting down. Taking this study a step further, helping older adults compensate for a less sensitive vestibular system in order to achieve proper weight shifting is something that physical therapists are very good at teaching!