Balance and gait disorders in older adults may be directly related to changes in the brain, according to a research report published in the March 18 issue of Neurology (2008; , 935–42). The 3-year study involved 639 men and women aged 65–84 who were given brain scans and balance and walking tests. The scans revealed age-related, white-matter changes in all the participants. The changes were mild in 284 subjects, moderate in 197 subjects and severe in the remaining 158 subjects. Those with severe changes were twice as likely to score poorly on the mobility and balance tests as those with mild changes; they were also twice as likely to experience falls.
Decreased mobility and fall potential are significant concerns, especially when white-matter changes are severe, stated the study authors, adding that these problems can lead to increased need for hospitalization or elder-care facility placement. “Walking difficulties and falls are major symptoms of people with white-matter changes and a significant cause of illness and death in the elderly,” said author Hansjoerg Baezner, MD, PhD. “Exercise may have the potential to reduce the risk of these problems, since exercise is associated with improved walking and balance.” Baezner and his team plan to introduce a follow-up study that will determine the effects of exercise on the current study’s participants.