New Scientist Default Image

Bad balance: why dangerous falls are on the rise around the world

Modern lifestyles are making our balance worse – and leaving us more vulnerable to devastating trips and falls. The good news is, it’s never too late to regain your poise

Health



7 October 2020

FEW things in life are as embarrassing as falling flat on your face in public. Thankfully, once we have grown out of racing around in parks and playgrounds, it doesn’t happen all that often.

Don’t take your grace and poise for granted, though. According to a growing body of research, our ability to balance – one of humanity’s hardest-won evolutionary skills – is beginning to fade away. Around the world, falls that lead to serious injury or death are on the rise, even in the young. And most of the time, the people falling over are sober and doing nothing more complicated than standing or walking.

Globally, falls are the second biggest cause of accidental death after traffic accidents. Between 1990 and 2017, the total number of deadly falls around the world nearly doubled. Risk of losing your balance increases with age, so you might think this simply reflects the huge number of baby boomers entering their twilight years. But recent estimates suggest the incidence of falls is rising at a rate that outstrips what would be expected from a growing, ageing population.

So what is happening? The decline in our collective stability is prompting scientists to take a closer look at the complex brain-body interactions that underpin our ability to balance, and the ways that it is tied to both cognitive and emotional processing. This system is remarkably complicated, but it turns out that the problems undermining it are relatively simple to pin down. That means there are little things we all can do to improve our balance and reduce the risk of falling.

Anyone who …