Balance Problems

Causes

Even healthy older adults usually have less secure balance than they had when they were younger. Older adults may be taking many medications or coping with chronic conditions that can cause problems with balance.

Often several conditions can come together to produce balance problems. Some of those chronic conditions are:

  • inner ear problems, including vertigo
  • eye problems (such as cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, or macular degeneration)
  • numbness in feet and legs (neuropathy)
  • arthritis
  • heart or blood circulation problems
  • long-term diseases of the nervous system (such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer's disease)
  • taking multiple medications

Unsteadiness

Unsteadiness (disequilibrium), or loss of balance when standing or walking, is often experienced along with vertigo and other types of dizziness. The causes include:

  • Inner ear problems. These can cause sensations of floating or unsteadiness, especially in the dark. 
  • Vision problems. Cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and weakening eyesight (reduced visual acuity) are risk factors for disequilibrium.
  • Numbness. Numbness (peripheral neuropathy) in the legs and feet comes from nerve damage, a result of simple aging or diseases like diabetes. Your nerves can no longer send signals to your brain about the position of your legs and feet, which can cause unsteadiness.
  • Other nerve problems. Neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, ataxia, spinal cord disorders, and other chronic diseases increase the risk of balance problems.
  • Joint and muscle problems. Most people experience at least some arthritis, joint pain, or muscle weakness with advancing years. These can interfere with your body’s ability to move and react quickly to changes in posture or position.
  • Medications. Many older adults take quite a few different medications each day—both prescription and over-the-counter products. Your sense of balance may be affected by some of these drugs, such as:
    • anti-epileptic drugs
    • sedatives and tranquilizers
    • beta blockers (a type of heart medicine)
    • blood pressure medications
    • drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease
    • some antidepressants
    • nitroglycerin (a heart medicine) if taken with erectile dysfunction drugs containing sildenafil (Viagra or Cialis)
    • narcotics/opioids (pain drugs)
    • sleep medications
    • alternative medications such as Ginkgo biloba, melatonin, St. John’s wort, and medical marijuana

Combining drugs or drinking alcohol along with any of these medications may intensify your unsteadiness.

 

Last Updated November 2016