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A new study has found that individuals with visual impairment have a significantly greater risk of suffering from poor balance, a contributing factor in falls among older adults.

A team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, set out to better understand the relationship between vision, balance and falls. The team evaluated data from the 2001-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, selecting data from 4,590 adults aged 40 or older who had completed a balance test as part of the survey.

To test balance, participants stood with their feet together on a firm or soft foam surface with their eyes open or closed. The eyes-closed test on the foam surface was designed to “minimize visual and proprioceptive inputs in order to assess vestibular balance.” Researchers then recorded the length of time before the participants began to fall or needed help during the test. Those who were unable to maintain their balance for 15 seconds on the firm surface or 30 seconds on the foam surface were given a “failing” grade for the test.

The researchers found that individuals with visual impairment and those with uncorrected refractive error had considerably higher rates of failing the eyes-closed foam-surface balance test. Participants with visual impairment were also more likely to self-report falling in the last year. 

These results indicate even when vision is corrected, individuals with poor vision suffer from a decreased sense of balance. The authors believe that reduced visual inputs may weaken the vestibulo-ocular reflex, an important system that maintains the body’s sense of balance.

“Our research is the first large scale population study to compare objective measures of physical balance across individuals with normal vision, uncorrected refractive error, and the visually impaired, and the first to link poor vision with diminished vestibular balance,” said Jeffrey R. Willis, lead author of the study. “These results have important implications for improving balance and mobility in the U.S. population and preventing falls.”

The authors note that more research needs to be conducted to develop fall prevention strategies, as falls are the leading cause of injuries, injury death, and trauma-related hospital admission among seniors. Falls also have a heavy economic toll, as over $30 billion was spent on healthcare for older adults treated for fall-related injuries.

Watch lead author Jeffrey R. Willis discuss the study: 

Read the article: Researchers Find Diminished Balance in Those with Poor Vision or purchase the full study: Visual Impairment, Uncorrected Refractive Error, and Objectively Measured Balance in the United States.

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