We all feel a little unsteady from time to time. However, balance issues can lead to a major health risk for seniors: falls. Bones become more brittle in our golden years, meaning that we may have a harder time healing from falls than our younger counterparts. While balance issues and falls might seem like the result of problems with motor function, balance issues often have less to do with motor skills than they do with vision. Vision plays a major role in our ability to orient ourselves in space, process our surroundings, and balance during everyday activities like walking or going down stairs. So how does vision affect balance? To understand the connection, we have to understand one of the body’s sensory motor systems: the vestibular system.
How Does Vision Affect Balance?
The Anatomy of the Eye
First, let’s address the anatomy of the eye. The human eye contains little nerve endings with light-sensitive cells called rods and cones. The rods and cones send signals to the brain through the optic nerve, helping the brain interpret what we see. Those images help us determine how close we are to certain objects – for example, a set of stairs. If your visual system were malfunctioning, you wouldn’t be able to tell how far you needed to raise your foot to reach the next step.
Vision and the Vestibular System
Balance is reliant on three sensory motor systems that work together: the vestibular system, the proprioceptive system, and the visual system. The vestibular system is directly connected to about 20 percent of the eye’s nerve fibers. It’s also connected to the bones and soft tissue of the inner ear, a region that dictates balance and coordination. According to research published in JAMA Ophthalmology, vision likely plays an important role in calibrating the vestibular system. That means that if your vision is thrown off, your vestibular system may be too.
How to Tell When Vision Is Affecting Balance
How can you tell when balance issues are the result of vision problems? There are a few common red flags:
- Hand-Eye Coordination Problems: One of the first signs of vision issues is difficulty with everyday activities like opening doors, pouring water, or inserting a credit card into a chip reader.
- Insecurity Around Stairs: If you find yourself inching your way down stairs or struggling with depth perception when descending a flight of stairs, your vision may be to blame.
- Discomfort When Walking Down Hallways: If you feel off-balance while walking through straight spaces like hallways or corridors, it could be a sign of vision-related balance issues.
Of course, it can be difficult to differentiate between a motor function issue and a vision issue. For that reason, it’s important to work with an eye specialist. Make sure to schedule regular checkups with your optometrist to keep your vision in tip-top shape.
So how does vision affect balance? Put simply, declining vision can affect the vestibular system, which has a direct impact on balance. For these reasons and more, taking care of your vision is an important part of staying healthy throughout your golden years.
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