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Posted: March 25, 2008

Loss of Balance in Old Age May Indicate Several Serious Issues

Medical experts are watching for changes in white matter in the brain to signal whether seniors are more or less likely to lose their balance and fall.
Such white matter changes – known as leukoaraiosis – are a normal part of the aging process.
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"Walking difficulties and falls are major symptoms of people with white matter changes and a significant cause of illness and death in the elderly," said study author Dr. Hansjoerg Baezner of the University of Heidelberg in Mannheim, Germany, adding: "Exercise may have the potential to reduce the risk of these problems, since exercise is associated with improved walking and balance.”
Baezner and colleagues spent three years tracking 639 men and women, ages 65 to 84, who participated in walking and balance tests, as well as brains scans. The scans showed that 284 of the volunteers had mild age-related changes to their brain's white matter, while 197 had moderate changes, and 158 had severe changes.
The findings, published in the journal Neurology, indicated that when compared to those with mild leukoaraiosis, people with severe shifts were twice as likely to score poorly on tests for walking and balance and two times more likely to have a history of falls. In turn, seniors with moderate leukoaraiosis were 1.5 times more likely to have a history of falling than those with mild changes.
Scientists are interested in understanding how falls tend to occur because mobility problems in the aging population often lead to hospitalization and nursing-home placement. Likewise, monitoring white matter changes may alert doctors to earlier identification of walking problems, which have been linked to other health issues.
"Recently, gait abnormalities have been shown to predict non-Alzheimer's disease dementia, so recognition, early diagnosis and treatment of this disabling condition may be possible through early detection of walking and balance problems," Baezner said.
Baezner said although the focus is on leukoaraiosis for what it can tell the medical community, the reasons why white matter changes as we age and why it's worse in some people aren't fully understood. Some thought exists, however, that these changes are tied to untreated high blood pressure conditions. More research is planned.

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