Fitness

Teetering on the edge: more misleading news on balancing and mortality risk

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Once again, news outlets are booming out warnings about the life-or-death-level importance of balancing.

Balance training is an important but often-neglected skill, one that impacts both our longevity and our quality of life, beginning around age 40.

Every news article about balance will remind us of the World Health Organization grim stats on the effects of falls on health and life globally. However you manage it, having good balance is super-important, especially as we age. There are loads of tips in this article about ways to improve our balance through various exercises. You all undoubtedly know a lot about this already.

How can we know how good our balance is? Maybe they should devise some sort of test.

Luckily for most of us, what researchers have in mind is a 10-second balance test. But what sort of balancing should I be doing? Where does the other leg go– to the side, bent or straight, lifted or near the standing leg, what?

The internet fails to offer a consensus opinion.

You might be thinking, this isn’t that big a deal. Well, the media outlets beg to differ. Based on this article that was published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, news outlets are saying that passing the 10-second balance test is linked to living longer. Then they follow up with ways to improve your balance, in hopes that, by balancing longer, you’ll also live longer.

Sigh. No, just no.

As we know, science is complicated. As an illustration of that fact, the researchers came up with this graph to show the role of balance in longevity. I hope this clears things up.

Star-shaped network graph of factors contributing to health, with 10-second one legged stand being one of them.
Oh yeah, that helps a lot. Thanks!

Okay, enough idle snarking. Here are my two takeaway points:

Takeaway point one: medical science researchers are always looking for easy, simple and inexpensive-to-implement predictors of future health status. Checking to see how someone performs on a 10-second balance test is easy to do and can be done in pretty much any indoor setting in well, 10 seconds. And it costs nothing.

But, it’s just *one* metric among a lot of others, some of which are *much* more salient to a person’s health status. And it’s partly predictive, not causal. Yes, problems with balance can contribute to falls, which contribute to complicated health problems throughout the life trajectory. But, the results from this study are simply offering some statistical evidence that this cheap ‘n’ easy test might be useful information for clinicians and patients. Performance on the test doesn’t determine how long you’ll live, and cramming to do better on the test won’t affect your longevity (not really).

Takeaway point two: what about those people who, for loads of reasons, the 10-second balance test isn’t appropriate or doesn’t apply? We come in all sorts of bodies, with all sorts of structures and limitations and conditions and medical histories. Using metrics from the 10-second balance test excludes lots of otherwise healthy and functioning people, as predictive health algorithms or processes won’t be applied to them.

Also, relying on the 10-second balance test alone ignores ways in which lots of people navigate, balance and manage their environments within whatever constraints or limitations or different structures they live with. And if those ways are ignored, then clinicians won’t detect changes, so patients won’t get help they might need to maintain their ways of life.

It’s important to remind ourselves, researchers, patients and the media that cover such stories that good medical care doesn’t always come in a cheap, easy and quick packages. That’s because we (the humans) come in a variety of packages ourselves. So we need some variety in the ways we take care of ourselves and the ways others take care of us.

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