What benefit would there be to having a lean, strong body if you have an unhealthy brain? With age, a number of diseases can rob us of the ability to think clearly and remember including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Over time, tiny blood vessels in the brain can become inflamed or blocked by plaque. These plaques reduce blood flow to the most important organ in your body, your brain.
The accumulation of plaques can lead to changes in brain function, including memory loss and dementia, or even a stroke. A person with this type of damage can also experience tiny pinpoint hemorrhages called micro-bleeds that lead to cumulative damage to the brain over time. About one in five people over the age of 60 have experienced a micro-bleed, or “silent stroke,” most of who aren’t aware of it. This is more likely to happen if you lead an unhealthy lifestyle or have other health problems like high blood pressure.
To see how healthy the small blood vessels in your brain really are, you would have to undergo an imaging study like an MRI. Although not as powerful as an MRI scan, researchers say there’s a simple exercise you can do to get an idea of how healthy the blood vessels in your brain are – the one-leg balance test, a test you can do with a stopwatch. What could be simpler?
How Good Is Your Balance and Why It Matters For Your Brain
In a study published in the journal Stroke, researchers asked 841 men and 546 women, average age of 67, to balance on one leg for up to 60 seconds. The participants were allowed to keep their eyes open during the test. After recording the times for two different attempts and averaging them, they examined the brains of the men and women using an MRI scan.
After comparing times the participants were able to balance on one leg with the MRI scan results, they found one-legged balance time was correlated with brain health, particularly the health of the small blood vessels that feed the brain. Men and women who couldn’t balance on one leg for more than 20 seconds were more likely to have damaged blood vessels in their brain, including areas where micro-bleeds or “mini-strokes” have occurred. This was true even after researchers took into account other factors like high blood pressure and heart disease that might impact the results. What’s even more concerning is blood vessel damage of this type can be a harbinger of a stroke or dementia, even when they cause no symptoms.
As the researchers in this study point out, the amount of time you can balance on one leg with your eyes open is a measure of postural stability, the ability to hold an erect position. Changes in postural stability and difficulty balancing on one leg can be a sign of brain vessel abnormalities and an early indicator of cognitive decline. Cognitive decline is linked with disease and damage to the small blood vessels in the brain. Plus, small blood vessel disease is a risk factor for stroke. The inability to balance on one leg can also be a sign of nervous system disease including Parkinson’s.
This isn’t the only study to show a link between postural stability and health. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2014 discovered a link between all-cause mortality and the amount of time a person can balance on one leg with eyes closed. It showed participants who couldn’t balance on one leg without opening their eyes for 2 seconds or more were at 3 times higher risk for death than those who can balance on a single leg for 10 seconds or longer. Balancing on one leg with eyes closed is considerably more challenging since you don’t have visual input to help you stay upright.
How Long Can You Balance on One Leg?
Balancing on one leg is a simple test you can do at home to assess your own postural stability. Like your blood pressure or cholesterol, it says something about the health of your brain. It also says something about an older person’s risk of falling.
To do the one-leg balance test, stand on one leg with your arms crossed over your chest and without pressing the leg you’re holding up against your standing leg. Use a timer to see how long you can hold the position. Give yourself a few practice runs before timing yourself. Stop timing yourself if your foot touches the floor, if you have to hop to stay balanced or if your standing leg touches the leg you’re holding up. Then try it with your eyes closed for a greater balance challenge.
What’s “normal” for the one-leg stance test depends on your age. On average, a healthy person between ages 18 and 39 can maintain postural stability on one leg with eyes open or closed for 44 seconds. A male or female in their 40s, on average can hold a one-legged stance for around 41 seconds with eyes open and 40 seconds with eyes closed. During the fifth decade of life, the average one-legged balance time with eyes open stays roughly the same but the eyes closed time drops to an average of around 37 seconds. During the sixth decade, average hold time with eyes open is around 32 seconds and with eyes closed around 27 seconds. In the seventh decade, the average hold time with eyes open is around 22 seconds and eyes closed only about 15 seconds.
Try the one-leg balance test at home and see how you do. If you lift weights, you’re constantly giving yourself a “balance challenge” when you do lunges and one-legged squats so your times will probably be pretty good. That’s one of the many benefits of fitness training!
Medical News Today. “Capacity to Balance on One Leg Reflects Brain Health”
Physical Therapy and Rehab Medicine. “One-Legged (Single Limb) Stance Test”
Aging (Milan), 10(1), 26-31. (1998)
Medscape Family Medicine. “Cerebral Microbleeds: Detection, Mechanisms, and Clinical Challenges: Clinical Implications of CMBs” (2011)
Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy. Vol. 30: 1:07. “Normative Values for the Unipedal Stance Test with Eyes Open and Closed”
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