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Lack of Balance in Middle Age May Increase Risk of Early Death

The inability to balance on one leg for 10 seconds may be a warning sign

A new study reports that people with poor balance in middle age may have shorter lifespans.
andresr / Getty Images

An inability to balance for more than 10 seconds on one leg in midlife could be an indicator of early death, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.​

It’s widely known that balance diminishes once people reach their mid-50s and beyond, which increases the risk for falls and other incidents that can negatively affect health. Previous studies have linked the inability to stand on one leg to cognitive decline, but little research has been done on the connection between a lack of balance and mortality rates. ​

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A team of Brazilian researchers — led by Claudio Gil Araújo, M.D., of Clinimex, an exercise medicine clinic — set out to see if a simple balance test during a routine physical exam could determine a person’s risk of death from any cause within 10 years. ​

Age affects balance 

To test their theory, the researchers turned to the Clinimex exercise cohort study, which was initiated in 1994 to assess physical fitness and cardiovascular risk factors of people living in Brazil. The researchers analyzed 1,702 participants between the ages of 51 and 75, who were asked at their initial checkup to stand on one leg for 10 seconds without any other support.​

To improve standardization, the subjects were told to place the front of the free foot on the back of the opposite lower leg, keep their arms by their side and look straight ahead. The participants (61 years old, on average, and two-thirds of whom were men) were allowed three tries on either foot. One in 5, or 20.5 percent, failed to balance on one leg. Those who couldn’t balance tended to have poorer health; suffer from obesity, heart disease or high blood pressure; and have unhealthy blood-fat profiles. ​

By age, the percentage who couldn’t balance was roughly: 

  • 5 percent of those 51 to 55
  • 8 percent of those 56 to 60 
  • 18 percent of those 61 to 65 
  • 37 percent of those 66 to 70 
  • 54 percent of those 71 to 75 
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