Carole Blueweiss

Carole Blueweiss's TEDx Talk at TEDxBocaRaton

Many of us assume that the risk of falling is an inevitable part of growing older. Carole Blueweiss, a doctor of physical therapy, explains why aging and frailty are not synonymous. She challenges us all to work on our balance now, so the last years of our lives don’t have to be the worst – they may even be the best. Dr. Carole Blueweiss is redefining aging by challenging some of its traditional views.

With over 25 years of experience in Physical Therapy and as a certified geriatric specialist, she believes there are simple lifestyle choices that anyone can make, which have a strong impact on aging. Carole embraces holistic methods that focus on mind-body interconnection and the importance of awareness to one’s movement to combat the common misconception that aging leads to frailty. 

Through storytelling on her podcast, Wisdom Shared, Carole explores themes with her guests about having ‘ability’ versus ‘dis-ability.’ While aging may predispose us to lose some abilities, we have more control over this progression than we realize. Carole envisions a world where age does not limit resilience and where the last decade of life can be the most fun.

Transcript

When you put on your socks this morning, how did you do it? Did you sit? Did you lean against a wall for support? Or did you stand on one leg? Believe it or not, the answer to that question could determine whether the last years of your life are the worst years of your life or the best.

Falls are the leading cause of injury and injury related death in people over 65 years old. Many of us just assume that as we get older, we become more frail. But what if aging and frailty were not synonymous?

When my son was a toddler, I remember my mom, she used to bend down, pick him up, walk over to the living room, sit down with him on the floor, play with his trains. He would get up, she would get up and follow him all around the house in her high heel shoes.

That was my mom. Able to walk gracefully in shoes I refuse to wear much to her chagrin. Well, several years later she was on the telephone. She lost her balance, fell and broke her arm. I went to the doctor’s appointments with her. They evaluated the arm, they treated the arm, but no one asked her about her balance.

Now, I’ve been a physical therapist for 25 years. And in retrospect, we should all have been curious about why she fell. And I now realize that her balance was most likely declining well before the fall. Today, my mother is 87 years old. She goes everywhere with her blue rolling walker. She has someone next to her all the time to catch her in case she loses her balance and topples over, which happens often. It pains her to be like this, yet she does understand that she needs to use the walker. And I’m just so grateful because it really does decrease her risk for falls. One out of six people over the age of 65 experience a fall every year. It could be medications, disease, and something as simple as a throw rug in your home could increase your risk.

But you have more control than you think. The good news is that everyday activities like, getting dressed sitting down and standing up, even walking and talking with your friend is a great way to practice your balance.

But this is what tends to happen. Let’s say you’re putting on your socks, you try and you wobble a little bit. So then you decide, oh, next time I’ll lean against the wall and then, oh, my leg got a little tired. So the next time you say, I’ll sit down and that’s okay. Right? Well, here’s the catch. Just like our muscles weaken if we don’t use them, our balance weakens if we don’t practice balancing. You know that saying, if you don’t use it, you lose it? Well, that applies here very well.

And your decline in balance can start as early as your thirties, but no one is telling you that. Instead, you’re hearing about the benefits of cardio and stretching. And now there’s a lot of research coming out about the importance of strength training as we grow older.

These are all super important and you should do them all. It’s just that we hear less about balance training. And here’s the thing: we strengthen our muscles because we use strength for everything we do.

So why should our approach to balance be any different? Yet it is. We tend to wait for balance problems to show up before we consider doing anything about them. It’s like with strength training and cardio and stretching. These are proactive choices we make. And then with balance training, it tends to be more reactive.

I’m here today to inspire you to consider being more proactive to build better balance. Now, you’re already doing a great job every time you take a walk. And I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re balancing on one leg and then you’re balancing on the other leg and so forth. And every time you take a step, you’re literally catching yourself from falling.

It’s not much different than what tightrope walkers do. They’re constantly adjusting and readjusting their balance so that they don’t fall over. I’m not suggesting you go out and buy a tightrope, but I do want to make you aware that your brains and your bodies are constantly making adjustments with everything you do all day. You just might not notice it.

For example, if you’re walking on the sidewalk, you’re going over lots of cracks. But you just keep walking. You don’t notice, but your ankle is making these micro adjustments so you don’t sprain your ankle or fall. Let’s say someone from behind pushes you by mistake. You take a step. That’s a good thing. That’s another way that you prevent yourself from falling.

Now let’s imagine it got dark out and now you’re walking and every step is a leap of faith. We don’t realize how much we depend on our vision and our eyes for balance until we can’t use them. It’s ironic, right? That I’m encouraging you to wobble more so that you can learn how to be more steady on your feet.

So maybe it’s time to actually embrace those obstacles and uneven surfaces. They may actually be a way to make you more ninja like in your balance skills.

Fall prevention is a big topic these days, and for good reason. Falls can lead to serious injuries like hip fractures, head trauma, and for many older people life may never be the same after an injury like that.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a lot of studies coming out now that many falls are preventable and that frailty is not inevitable. The problems associated with aging, like muscle weakness, posture changes, balance issues, they don’t happen overnight. They happen much earlier than you even realize.

Think back when you were a child. If you were able, you would run around, climb things, fall down, get up, jump. When was the last time you jumped? And I bet that most of you sit a lot more now than you used to. I know I do. It’s like when we get older, we tend to challenge ourselves less physically. And we tend to avoid anything that makes us feel uncomfortable.

Like when we’re in an airport and you have the choice between the stairs and an escalator, I bet most of you choose the escalator. If we’re in a grocery store, I know I push the cart instead of grabbing a basket, filling it with groceries and carrying it. We tend to buy shoes with more and more cushioning and we find excuses not to get on the floor to read, watch television or play with our children or grandchildren.

These choices weaken our ability to balance so gradually that we don’t know that anything has changed until there’s a problem, just like what happened to my mom. And these days with iPhones and screens, children are spending a lot more time sitting at much earlier ages. So these problems are more likely to show up even earlier.

So what can you do? Well, you can start by not sitting. Instead, try this. Grab a chair for safety. Have it next to you. Grab your sock and try putting it on. If you wobble or take a step, that’s okay. That’s normal. Keep trying. If you feel that it’s unsafe, then by all means, lean against the wall. And if you have to sit down, it’s okay, but far too many of us sit when it’s actually not necessary.

And that’s exactly how we lose our ability to balance, by not practicing. We must challenge ourselves to build better balance. Of course, as we age, our bodies change, and that means we might feel differently when we move. And for some of us, we might acquire a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s, for example.

And in that case, yeah, we have less control over how we age, but we all have more control than we think. And it’s never too late to improve your balance. When our balance improves, we give ourselves a gift we didn’t even know we needed. Confidence, the confidence to do the things you love, the confidence to move without fear.

And that’s why my mom, she loves going to physical therapy. She complains that they’re not challenging her enough. And she wishes she could go more often. She’s still pushing herself and I love her for that. So tomorrow, put on your socks, challenge yourself, build better balance, one sock at a time. And the last years of your life may just be the best years of your life.

Thank you.