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Study: Balance test helps predict life expectancy

A man with a cane sits on cushions on a wooden bench

July 7, 2022—If you're in your 50s and beyond, your ability to balance on one leg for 10 seconds might be a clue to your life expectancy, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine finds. But if you're not so steady on your feet, there's good news: Exercising as you get older can help you avoid at least one potential consequence of declining balance: serious falls.

The study included 1,700 people between 51 and 75 years old. Researchers had the participants stand on one leg for 10 seconds. The researchers followed these people for up to nine years.

During that time, people who had failed the balance test were 84% more likely to die from any cause than those who aced it. There were 123 deaths among the study participants. Of these, 32% were from cancer, 30% from cardiovascular diseases, 9% from lung disease and 7% from COVID-19 complications.

Those who could not stand with one leg raised for 10 seconds tended to be older. They were also more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. And people who did not pass the balance test were three times as likely to have diabetes. But even after the researchers adjusted for these and other potential factors, those who failed the balance test still were likelier to die earlier than those who passed.

Balance ability may reflect health

Previous studies have used similar balance tests to help identify those at greater risk of falls, strokes and cognitive decline. But in this study, failing a one-leg stand test seemed to help predict a shorter life expectancy, although more studies are needed to find out why.

We do know that as we age, our physical fitness and balance generally decline. This study suggests that fading balance appears to be linked to our overall health somehow.

A simple test

In the study, a doctor or nurse stood by to catch any participants who happened to fall. The study participants followed these basic steps:

  1. Raise one leg and rest the foot of the raised leg on the lower calf of the opposite leg, keeping the arms close to the body.
  2. Look straight ahead at a point about 6 feet away.
  3. Try to hold this one-leg stance for 10 seconds. (Up to three tries were allowed.)

If you're concerned about your balance, let your healthcare provider know. They can help you safely assess any issues.

Boost your balance with exercise

As the study authors point out, it's not yet clear if improving balance could help people live longer lives. However, exercise can help you maintain your balance, which naturally declines with age. And that may help you reduce the risk of a fall. You may want to give these workouts a try.

A treatable medical condition or a medication side effect can sometimes a cause a balance problem too. So it's a good idea to tell your doctor if you're worried about your balance or your risk of falls.

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