If you’re having a hard time standing on one leg, it may be a sign of something more serious than overdoing it at your summer drink party at the office. Research shows that middle-aged and older people who cannot balance on one leg for 10 seconds are nearly twice as likely to die within 10 years than those who can.
How well a person balances can provide insight into their health. Previous research suggests, for example, that an inability to balance on one leg is associated with an increased risk of stroke. It was also found that people with poor balance performed worse on tests of mental decline, suggesting their association with dementia.
An international group of experts from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Finland and Brazil has now completed a study, the first of its kind in 12 years, to examine the relationship between homeostasis and mortality. Although the research was based on observation and could not determine the cause, its results were astonishing.
The inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds in middle age onward is associated with a doubling of the risk of death from any cause over the next 10 years. The results were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The results were so stark that researchers led by Dr. Claudio Gil Araujo of the Clinimex Sports Medicine Clinic in Rio de Janeiro, suggested including the balance test in routine health checks for older adults.
In contrast to aerobic fitness and muscle strength and flexibility, balance tends to be well maintained until the sixth decade of life, when it begins to decline relatively quickly. However, balance assessment is not usually included in health checks for middle-aged and older people, possibly because there is no standard test for it. To date, there has been little challenging data linking balance to clinical outcomes other than falls.
A total of 1,702 people ages 51 to 75 with stable gait were followed between 2008 and 2020 for the study. Initially, participants were asked to stand on one leg for 10 seconds without any additional support. To standardize the test, participants were asked to place the front of their free foot on the back of the opposite leg while keeping their arms by their sides and their gaze fixed forward. Up to three attempts were allowed on either foot.
One in five (21%) fail the test. Over the next decade, 123 died of various causes. After accounting for age, gender, and baseline conditions, the inability to stand without support on one leg for 10 seconds was associated with an 84% increased risk of death from any cause.
The researchers said the study had limitations, including that all participants were white Brazilians, which means the results may not be broadly applicable to other races and nations.
However, the researchers concluded that the 10-second balance test “provides rapid and objective feedback to the patient and health professionals regarding static balance” and “adds useful information regarding mortality risk in middle-aged and older men and women.”