Nearly 8 million adults in the United States report a balance disorder each year. Although reporting crosses the spectrum of ages, the likelihood of a balance issue increases significantly in people past the age of 75, with nearly 40 percent of older adults affected by balance-related challenges. Falls are a natural consequence of these issues, with about one-third of people aged 65 and up experiencing falls; this figure increases to about 50 percent for people over the age of 75.
Symptoms can range from vertigo, when the world might appear to be spinning, to a sense of lightheadedness. Unsteadiness can result, which is a “sense of imbalance, disorientation, and occasionally a loss of your sense of time, or place,” according to HealthinAging.org. Causes can include inner ear problems, anxiety, allergies, infections, headaches, ringing in the ears, nerve issues, low blood pressure, dehydration and more. Dizziness also can be a reaction to medications.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) provides a more detailed look at more common balance disorders, including labyrinthitis, which simply means an inflammation or infection of the inner ear. This condition often is associated with upper respiratory infections, including the flu, and can cause dizziness and loss of balance.
Another possibility is Ménière's disease. The cause of this disease is still unknown, although it can be associated with fluid volume changes in the labyrinth. The labyrinth is the outer wall of the inner ear. It is rigid and bony, and consists of the vestibule, cochlea and semicircular canals. They house a clear liquid known as perilymph. Find more information here about Ménière's disease, which can cause vertigo, tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), a sense of fullness in the ears and hearing loss.
Another possibility for some balance issues is positional vertigo, which is a brief but intense sense of vertigo when you move your head in a specific way. This might occur when you bend down to look for something, roll over in bed or look over your shoulder. This can occur because of a head injury, but also simply can be part of aging for some people.
Vestibular neuronitis is an inflammation of a specific nerve — the vestibular — and it can cause vertigo. The culprit in this case is a virus. You can read the NIDCD article for more common causes of balance disorders.
Treatment depends on the diagnosis. If your primary care physician needs assistance in diagnostics, you may be sent to an otolaryngologist, a type of doctor specializing in issues of the ear, nose, neck and throat. He or she may order blood tests, a hearing exam, imaging of your head, an electronystagmogram to measure eye movements and eye muscle movements or a posturography, which measures how your body responds to movement. Treatments can range from medication toparticipating in certain movements to lifestyle changes to rehabilitation therapy.
Although not all balance disorders and their accompanying symptoms can be fully resolved, the impact of balance disorders on people’s lives is more fully recognized today. Fortunately, this means that new research studies are underway, with more diagnostic tools and treatments being developed. Talk to your doctor about any of your balance concerns or dizziness symptoms.