RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Is better balance the key to a longer life? Middle-aged people who can’t stand on one leg for 10 seconds are nearly twice as likely to die within a decade, according to new research. Scientists in Brazil say the simple and safe balance test should become part of a routine health check for older adults.
Unlike aerobic fitness, muscle strength, and flexibility, balance tends to stay relatively steady until someone reaches their 50s, then it starts to wane rapidly. However, testing for balance isn’t a normal part of regular health checks for middle-aged people, possibly because there is no standardized test and there is little hard data linking it to injuries or disease beyond falling, the researchers say.
A team from Clinimex Medicina do Exercicio wanted to know whether a balance test might be a reliable indicator of a person’s risk of death from any cause within the next decade and whether the test should therefore be part of routine health checks.
They used participants from the CLINIMEX Exercise study, set up in 1994 to assess links between various measures of physical fitness and the risk of ill health and death from cardiovascular problems.
The current study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, included more than 1,700 participants between 51 and 75 years-old (average age 61) at their first check-up, between February 2009 and December 2020. Around two-thirds (68%) were men.
1 in 3 older adults couldn’t pass the balance test
Study authors took several measurements of each person’s weight, skinfold thickness, and waist size. They also gathered details of their medical history. Only those with stable gait participated in the experiment.
As part of the check-up, participants had to stand on one leg for 10 seconds without any additional support. They were asked to place the front of the free foot on the back of the opposite lower leg, while keeping their arms by their sides and their gaze fixed straight ahead. Researchers allowed each person to try it up to three times on either foot.
One in five (20.5%) failed to pass the test and this percentage rose in tandem with age — doubling at five-year intervals starting at age 51. Among those 51 to 55, nearly five percent failed. Eight percent failed between ages 56 and 60. Eighteen percent failed between 61 and 65, and more than one in three (37%) failed between ages 66 and 70.
More than half of those 71 to 75 were unable to complete the test, meaning people in this age group were more than 11 times as likely to fail as those 20 years younger. During a monitoring period of seven years, 123 (7%) people died.
Risk of death increases by more than 80 percent!
Those deaths included 32 percent dying of cancer, 30 percent dying of cardiovascular disease, nine percent from respiratory disease, and seven percent from COVID complications. There were no clear temporal trends in the deaths, or differences in the causes, between those able to complete the test and those who weren’t able to do so.
However, the proportion of deaths among those who failed the test was significantly higher: 17.5 percent compared to just 4.5 percent. In general, those who failed the balance test had poorer health. Many were obese, had heart disease, or high blood pressure and too much fat in the blood.
Type two diabetes was three times as common in this group, around 38 percent versus 13 percent in those who passed the test. After accounting for age, sex, and underlying health conditions, an inability to stand unsupported on one leg for 10 seconds displayed a connection to an 84-percent heightened risk of death from any cause within the next decade.
“This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause,” study author Dr. Claudio Gil Araujo says, according to a statement. “As participants were all white Brazilians, the findings might not be more widely applicable to other ethnicities and nations. And information on potentially influential factors, including recent history of falls, physical activity levels, diet, smoking and the use of drugs that may interfere with balance, wasn’t available.
“The 10 second balance test provides rapid and objective feedback for the patient and health professionals regarding static balance,” the researchers add. “The test adds useful information regarding mortality risk in middle-aged and older men and women.”
South West News Service writer Danny Halpin contributed to this report.