The Healthy Geezer
Q: I’m not sure what’s going on, but, once in a while, I find myself losing my balance. Is this just an aging thing or what?
A: About one in ten people over sixty-five experience difficulty with balance. More than forty percent of Americans will go to a doctor complaining of dizziness. Getting older is only part of the problem. Inner-ear disturbances are the primary cause.
Losing balance when you’re older is serious stuff. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, each year, more than one-third of people over sixty-five years suffer a fall. Falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among older adults. And, even if the fall doesn’t kill you, you could fracture a hip and then a whole bunch of problems will can cascade over you—limitations on activities, isolation, loss of independence, depression.
Not all balance problems have the same cause. Here are several major ones:
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). With BPPV, one of the most common causes of balance problems, you get vertigo when you change the position of your head. You may also experience BPPV when you roll over, get out of bed, or when you look on a high shelf. BPPV is more likely in people over sixty.
Labyrinthitis, an infection or inflammation of the inner ear. The labyrinth is the organ in your inner ear that enables you to maintain balance.
Ménière’s disease, which also can give you intermittent hearing loss, a ringing or roaring in the ears, and a feeling of fullness in the ear.
Other causes may involve another part of the body, such as the brain or the heart. Aging, infections, head injury, certain medicines, or problems with blood circulation may also cause problems with balance.
Blood-pressure medications and some antibiotics can cause balance problems. If you are taking any drugs in these categories and feel off-balance, it’s worth discussing with your doctor.
Some people may have a balance problem and don’t know it. Balance disorders can be difficult to diagnose because patients sometimes can’t describe their symptoms well. Balance disorders can be signs of other health problems, so it’s important to have them checked out.
If you can answer any of the following positively, discuss the symptom with your doctor.
Do you feel: Unsteady? Disoriented? As if the room is spinning? As if you’re moving when you’re still? As if you’re falling? As if you might faint?
Also, do you ever lose your balance and fall? Or, do you experience blurred vision?
Persistent balance problems are not something you should pass off as a harmless part of the aging process. They should always be examined carefully.
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Tanning beds are not the answer to winter depression
—The Skin Cancer Foundation
With the dark days of winter upon us, many are heading to tanning salons as the solution for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—aka winter depression—which is believed to affect approximately fifteen million Americans. Tanning salons tout their services as a treatment for SAD, though the ultraviolet radiation (UVR) they produce is not a component of light therapy, the most effective treatment.
“People often think of sunbathing as the antidepressant essence of light exposure. Wrong! Light therapy acts through the eyes, and requires visible light, not UV,” says Michael Terman, PhD, Director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, Columbia University Medical Center, New York City.
Since UV light is not a treatment for SAD, those affected with this disease are only putting their health at risk for skin cancer by visiting a tanning salon. New high-pressure sunlamps emit as much as twelve times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose they receive from sun exposure. People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.
Most SAD specialists recommend obtaining light via a light box rather than visiting a tanning salon. Light boxes are portable, visible light sources which provide up to ten thousand lux of illumination—ten to twenty-five times as bright as ordinary lighting and “equivalent to outdoor light about forty minutes after sunrise,” according to Terman. Most patients use light boxes early in the morning, for fifteen to sixty minutes.
What to look for in a light box
Choose a light box with ten thousand lux of illumination. Light boxes offering fewer lux are not as effective.
Use a UV filter. Most light boxes use fluorescent bulbs, which emit a small amount of UV radiation. Your light box should have a UV filter or diffusing screen to protect your skin and eyes.
Opt for soft white lights. Full spectrum lights produce greater amounts of blue light (which can harm the eyes) and UV radiation.
The first organization in the U.S. committed to educating the public and medical professionals about sun safety, The Skin Cancer Foundation is still the only global organization solely devoted to the prevention, detection, and treatment of skin cancer. The mission of the Foundation is to decrease the incidence of skin cancer through public and professional education and research.