A simple balance test could serve as an indicator of risk of disease and death. A study of more than 1,700 subjects found a disproportionate rate of death among people unable to stand on one leg for ten seconds. Eventually, such an examination could become part of routine health check-ups starting in middle age.
Aging is associated with a gradual decline in fitness, muscle strength/power, flexibility, and balance. It is also well established that the combination of obesity and loss of flexibility and balance is detrimental to overall health, making frail people more prone to falls and other serious adverse medical sequelae. Falls are the second leading cause of accidental injury-related death worldwide.
That being said, unlike aerobic fitness, muscle strength, or flexibility, balance tends to be reasonably preserved well into your mid-50s, before
start to decline rapidly. However, the assessment of this capacity is not yet systematically integrated into the clinical examination of middle-aged and older people. A study proves once again that it should be.
As part of this work published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a team from the University of Bristol sought to assess whether the ability to hold on one leg for ten seconds was or was not associated with all-cause mortality.
For this study, the researchers recruited 1702 individuals (68% men, 32% women) aged 51 to 75 between 2008 and 2020. Models were used to compare survival curves and risk of death depending on the ability or inability to complete the test. The scientists also took into account several parameters such as weight, waist circumference or medical history. Each person was able to make three attempts with either foot. Of the sample, 348 subjects (about one in five) failed .
Unsurprisingly, the failure rate increased with age. This was indeed about 5% among 51-55 year olds, 8% among 56-60 year olds, nearly 18% among 61-65 year olds and just under 37% among 66-70 years old. Beyond that, more than half of the subjects failed .
Following patients over a median follow-up of seven years allowed the researchers to isolate certain associations between balance and mortality. Approximately 7% of the cohort (123 subjects) died during this period from various causes (cancer, cardiovascular disease, COVID-19 or other complications).
While there are no clear trends regarding balance test scores and these causes, or how long subjects live, the death rate among those who failed was significantly higher:17.5% versus 4.5% . Note that those who failed the test were generally in poorer health with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
After taking all of these components into account, the team calculated that an inability to stand on one leg for ten seconds was associated with an increase in 84% 10-year risk of death , whatever the cause.
Despite the small sample size, the team suggests that this type of balance test could become a cheap and non-invasive tool in the context of routine healthcare , just like a simple blood pressure or blood test can be.