Many people use the changing of a calendar year as an excuse to make new resolutions or goals they hope to accomplish in the coming year. One that I hear often, and have made myself, is to live a balanced lifestyle or to be more balanced. Although I realize in this context most individuals are referring to carefully segmenting their life to ensure they are giving equal attention to their family, jobs, health, community and their faith, I am going to use the opportunity to explain how to stay balanced – from a physiologic perspective.
Attaining and maintaining balance is dependent on three major systems: the visual (eyes), vestibular (ears) and somatosensory (legs/feet). Often described as a three-legged stool, these three systems provide important input to your brain, allowing it to process the information and act accordingly. Most times, this action is completely a reflex. For example, if you are shaking your head left and right, your eyes will move in an equal and opposite way. Other times, your brain takes all the input and you are able to make a decision based on it. For example, if you are standing on an unsteady surface and begin to lose your balance, you may take a compensatory step to stay upright.
As expected, the balance system works best when all three legs of the stool are functioning correctly. Individuals with hearing loss are much more likely to experience issues with one of these legs – the vestibular system. The vestibular system is composed of 5 major sensory organs in each ear. There are three semicircular canals, which detect angular motion, aka when your head is moving left right, up down or ear to shoulder. Then, there are two otolith organs, the utricle and saccule, which provide information regarding gravity and linear acceleration. Depending on the direction and degree your head moves, your ears give your brain, eyes and muscles information so the body knows how to react.
Dysfunction of one or multiple of these organs (or issues with the vestibular branch of the nerve) can be detrimental for the individuals of all ages. Infants and children with vestibular disorders may be delayed in their major gross motor milestones (sitting up, walking). Adults with disorders may be at increased fall risk, which, especially for older adults can lead to a number of other health issues.
Vestibular disorders and dizziness are common amongst the population. As many as 35% of adults aged 40 or older in the US (69 million Americans) have experienced some sort of vestibular dysfunction. As individuals age, their chance at vestibular dysfunction increases dramatically. About 80% of people aged 65 and older have experienced dizziness. Disorders are also found in children, most being related to an abnormality of the ear or hearing loss.
As you seek to find balance in your life, consider what is within your control. If you’re not finding the balance you need, maybe it’s time to see a vestibular audiologist for an assessment. Another good professional to consult is a physical therapist who specializes in vestibular dysfunction. Most vestibular disorders can improve with physical therapy!