On the plane back from visiting my mom for Thanksgiving, I read Scott McCredie’s Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense. An entire chapter in the book is devoted to improving cognitive function by improving balance.
The chapter in Balance is mostly about people with learning disabilities, and about the vestibular systems in the inner ears. It is not about Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. But it got me to wondering about any connection between balance problems and memory loss.
There’s nothing in Alzheimer’s Association or other patient literature about balance, but when I talk with people with memory loss, some say this symptom was the first sign of their cognitive problems:
- “My balance is deteriorating…my pace is slower, my steps uneven, and I have fallen a few times.”
- “My change in gait was the thing that initially led my family to seek further diagnosis.”
- [I was] “bumping into partitions, losing balance getting up from a chair, tripping on stairs…falling down….”
- [I had] “a number of falling episodes.”
- “I’d get out of bed and I’d just fall. I wasn’t dizzy.”
I asked Joseph Friedman, MD, Director of the NeuroHealth Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Center in Warwick, Rhode Island and Clinical Professor at Brown University Medical School, whether screening for balance and gait problems is a routine part of an evaluation of memory loss.
“The usual neurological exam at the first visit does include evaluation of gait and balance,” he says, noting that some types of dementia can cause gait and balance problems in early stages, although it can depend on which area of the brain is affected. “Alzheimer’s disease usually presents with isolated memory and cognitive dysfunction. Vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, the two other major dementing disorders, certainly affect gait and balance early. Advanced Alzheimer’s often includes parkinsonism.”
So, if you have memory loss and balance problems, could physical therapy or any exercise help? I’ll talk about that in my next post.