How Brain Fitness Can Reduce Falls

If there's one thing seniors dread, it’s taking a tumble. Rather than living in fear, though, the solution for older adults is actually to focus on brain fitness. Doctors advise that being on your mental toes is a secret to staying on your feet and avoiding falls that can cause serious injury.

Cognitive strength helps seniors avoid falls because the brain must process information relayed to it by the three senses that orient us in space: the inner ear for movements of our head, the somatosensory system for the ground you walk on, and the eyes for obstacles in front of you. The mind synthesizes all this data in a nanosecond to plan a movement and then carry it out.

“Balance is a complex system,” advises Dr. Brad Manor, a instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Mobility and Falls Program at the Harvard-affiliated Hebrew Senior-Life in Boston. “Especially as we get older, cognition becomes a big part of it.”

Tai Chi and Playing Catch

Most seniors think the best way to stay on an even keel is by remaining physically fit and doing balance exercises such as standing on one foot. Although these activities are important — seniors need strong muscles to regain equilibrium once they lose their footing — specific brain fitness exercises designed to sharpen the mind-body connection are often left out of the equation.

Manor is studying the benefits of tai chi and yoga, both of which involve a mind-body connection by having a person methodically move through a series of postures. Tai chi is already known to improve balance.

Another exercise now shown to enhance balance through cognitive exertion is a game of catch. According to the University of Illinois at Chicago, older adults who stood and repeatedly caught a weighted medicine ball improved their brain’s ability to anticipate a potential fall and quickly engage muscles to prevent it. With age, the brain’s anticipatory skill declines, leaving seniors with just the brain’s ability to compensate when balance is lost — a significant disadvantage compared to avoiding a fall altogether.

Paying Better Attention

Sensory attention is a third brain fitness exercise seniors can practice to avoid falls. Today’s Geriatric Medicine reports that adults 65 to 75 improved their brain’s sensory attention after eight weekly sessions of cognitive training to enhance their ability to process visual information and common sounds.

“There is growing evidence that falls aren’t simply a physical process, but that cognition is involved,” says Paul J. Laurienti, MD, PhD, associate professor in the radiology department at Wake Forest University and author of the study. Sounds and other distractions contribute to falls because they result from multisensory interactions, he notes. “Ultimately, attention training could apply to everyday fall prevention.”

Safety Net

Because completely eliminating the possibility of falling is just not realistic, seniors should have a medical alert system in place for when they do take a spill. With age, however, they must also maintain their sense of balance both in the body and the mind. By working to enhance their brain fitness, older adults can help preserve the mind-body balance necessary to retaining their equilibrium and enjoying good senior health.

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