balance-improving exercise

Tai Chi is one type of exercise that helps improve balance.

An AAA analysis of existing research finds that older people who have had a fall are at about a 40% greater risk of being involved in a car accident than older adults who have not fallen, Ashley Halsey III reported for The Washington Post. The LongROAD study, “Associations Between Falls and Driving Outcomes in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” says the exact reasons for this are not clear.

The study does speculate on possible reasons for the correlation. It is possible, for example, that falls may have an adverse affect on a driver’s functional abilities thus increasing accident risk.

Improving Driving Performance

Several studies cited by the AAA researchers suggested that older people can improve their driving performance and prevent falls by participating in many forms of physical activity, such as exercises to improve leg strength, joint range of motion, gait abnormalities, and cognition. To improve their balance, they can try Tai Chi and other balance-boosting exercises.

Brenda Shaeffer, a physical therapist with a doctorate from Simmons College in Boston, said that people should be doing balance exercises no matter their age:

You need to have a balance routine in your programming that includes eliminating the view from your eyes.

She affirmed that practicing balancing on one leg until you are able to do so with your eyes closed is an effective exercise

“Drivers age 60 and older are involved in more than 400,000 crashes each year,” said Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In the United States, the number of people age 65 and older was 44.7 million in 2013, and the number is expected to rise to 98 million by 2060.

Effect of Vision

Because the brain uses the eyes to receive 80% of the information it needs to direct the muscles, dim lighting can increase the risk of falls. And, although cataract surgery, which improves vision, has been shown to reduce falls and car crashes, Shaeffer said it can have a downside as well:

Cataracts are really terrible because people only get one cataract fixed at a time, so if you have been using your left eye because you can’t see out of your right eye, and you go and get your cataract fixed on the right, now your good eye is your right, but you’ve been telling your body to look out of your left and everything’s twisted.

LongROAD, the group that did the analysis for this AAA report, stands for Longitudinal Research On Aging Drivers. It conducted the study to generate the largest and most comprehensive database about senior drivers, and will support in-depth studies of senior driving and mobility to better understand risks and develop effective countermeasures.

Here is a video from the National Institute on Aging on how to do a balancing exercise (and you can find more such exercises here):

Image by Craig Nagy, under Creative Commons license.