It’s something you might not have given much thought to before, but how well you can balance offers an insight into your general health.
A study published in the journal Stroke found that being unable to stand on one leg for more than 20 seconds was linked to an increased risk of ‘silent’ stroke – tiny bleeds in the brain that don’t cause symptoms, but which raise the risk of both full-blown stroke and dementia.
‘The ability to balance on one leg is an important test for brain health,’ says Dr Yasuharu Tabara, associate professor of genomic medicine at Kyoto University, Japan, who led the research.
Last year, the UK’s Medical Research Council found that 53-year-olds who could stand on one leg for ten seconds with their eyes closed were the most likely to be fit and well in 13 years’ time. However, those who could manage only two seconds were three times as likely to die before the age of 66.
Our sense of balance is based on three types of information. The first is visual – what your eyes can see going on around you and where you are, fed to the brain via the optic nerve.
There is also feedback from your joints and muscles. When they bend or stretch, special sensors, known as proprioceptors, send signals to the brain. ‘Proprioception is the body’s way of knowing where it is at any given moment without seeing it,’ says Dr David Selvadurai, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultant at St George’s Hospital, London, who specialises in balance disorders.
The third set of information comes from the inner ear, where there are tiny tubes, known as the semi-circular canals, which contain fluid that moves when our head does. Cells lining the tubes detect the fluid’s motion and communicate to the brain via the vestibulocochlear nerve – the pathway for both hearing and balance.