Health Services, Partners

Vestibular System and aging

Bourassa & Associates Rehabilitation Centre

What is the Vestibular System? How does that relate to Balance? And what happens to it with age?

By Leah White B.Kin., M.P.T., C.A.F.C.I.

Wikipedia: Thomas.haslwanterderivative work: Ortisa (talk) – VestibularSystem.gif, CC BY-SA 3.0

Q: What is the vestibular system? How does that relate to balance? And what happens to it with age?

A: The vestibular system comprises our peripheral vestibular apparatus and our central nervous system. The peripheral vestibular apparatus includes the inner ear and the associated nerve (the vestibulocochlear nerve) that connects it to the brain. The inner ear organ provides information about acceleration (e.g., taking off in an airplane) and rotational speed (e.g., bending, rolling over, looking up at the sky) of our body in space. The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) takes this information and combines it with signals from various sensory organs in our body including our eyes, and our muscle and joint receptors, particularly in our feet and neck, to create stable balance and vision. In short, the three most important components of balance are our visual system (eyes), our vestibular system, and our proprioceptive system (joints and muscles). Problems with balance can produce symptoms like dizziness, vertigo, nausea, blurred vision, and unstable gait, among others.

As we age, structures degenerate in all aspects of our body at varying rates. We can also succumb to various disease processes that cause decreased function in the affected organ. Changes in muscle and joint flexibility can affect the ability of the receptors to send appropriate signals to the brain about joint position in space and also limit our ability to respond to those changes and maintain our balance. For example, the majority of people will begin to experience decreased range of motion and strength in the ankle joint as they age. This lack of mobility limits the body’s ability to accommodate to perturbations in our balance and makes us prone the falling.

Disease processes like glaucoma or macular degeneration can impact the visual input that our brain relies on to determine our body position relative to the horizon. As a result, we are forced to rely on the other two major components of balance listed above; our inner ear and our joint receptors. This may require us to use a gait aid like a cane for extra tactile feedback with the ground which creates more proprioceptive input  for our balance system to rely on. Or, we may walk slower, take shorter steps and not lift our feet as high which can again make us prone to falling, especially if we have to rush unexpectedly to the washroom or to answer the phone or doorbell.

Alternatively, tiny particles can become dislodged in the inner ear and cause our peripheral vestibular apparatus to lose its ability to determine which way is up and makes us feel as though the world is spinning. This dizziness can be nauseating and debilitating or it can be a mild annoyance. If you believe you may be experiencing any of the above, or simply believe you have poor balance, contact a physical therapist  in your area that has specific training in vestibular and balance dysfunction. They can help determine why you may be dizziness and help devise a treatment plan to assist with your problem.


age-friendly, Partners

Working with Seniors Video

From 2011-2016, the Saskatoon Council on Aging conducted a five-year research project called the Age-friendly Saskatoon Initiative to assess the needs of older adults in Saskatoon. Through the research and community conversations that were conducted over the 5 years, hundreds of older adults described what it is like to grow old in Saskatoon, identified the kinds of supports that would provide a better quality of life and recommended actions needed to promote healthy aging.

In 2015 Saskatoon Council on Aging approached Chief Weighill and then Chief Paulson to explore actions recommended in Saskatoon Council on Aging’s Age-friendly Saskatoon Initiative that would enhance the safety of our community from the perspective of older adults. Both Chiefs took action: a working group was formed with SCOA, Police and Fire representatives and a number of activities have come from this group. This video is one.

It is rewarding to work with community partners who are dedicated to serving the older adult population in Saskatoon. SCOA joins with Police and Fire Services, and Preston Park to celebrate the Working with Seniors training video—and the fabulous actors! We celebrate community partnership, community action, and the knowledge that the police and fire services now have a tool to raise staff awareness about older adult issues that will help in their work to create a safer, age-friendly Saskatoon.