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Experts say the older you get, the more difficult it can be to stand on one leg. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Researchers say the ability to stand on one leg for at least 10 seconds can be an indicator of your overall health.
  • They say a lack of balance can be a sign of underlying health issues.
  • Other indicators such as grip strength and walking speed have also been linked to overall health.

The inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds might indicate an increase in the risk of death within the next decade, according to a new study.

As we age, our flexibility and balance diminish. Balance begins to be more difficult beginning in our 50s and can quickly go downhill.

Problems with balance increase the risk of falling, which is troubling as falls are the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. More than 37 million falls are severe enough to require medical attention each year.

Balance tests are not usually included in annual check-ups, even for older adults. This could be attributed to the lack of standardized tests and interpretation of results, according to the researchers of today’s study.

However, they say the inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds can indicate a higher risk of death from all causes during the following 10 years.

“Balance should be included when checking vital signs,” Anat Lubetzky, PT, PhD, CSCS, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at New York University, told Healthline. “It is one indicator in a host of indicators on the general health of a person.”

The recent study included 1,702 participants, aged 51 to 75, with an average age of 61. About two-thirds of the participants were men.

Researchers asked the participants to stand on one leg. The front of the free leg rested on the back of the opposite lower leg. Their arms were by their sides and their gaze straight ahead.

Participants were allowed up to three attempts and were allowed to use either leg.

About 20 percent of the participants were unable to complete the task, with that number increasing with age:

  • 5 percent of participants between 51 and 55 failed
  • 8 percent of those between 56 and 60 failed
  • 18 percent of those between 61 and 65 failed
  • About 37 percent of those 66 to 70 failed
  • 54 percent of participants between 71 and 75 failed

After accounting for age, sex, and underlying health conditions, the inability to stand one-legged for 10 seconds was associated with an 84 percent heightened risk of all-cause death over a median follow-up period of 7 years.

“It is important to remember,” said Lubetzky, “that the study found a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship.”

“Typically, a person in their 50s should be able to balance on one leg for around 40 seconds. Someone in their 60s is looking at 20 seconds, and someone in their 70s is around 10 seconds,” Lubetzky continued. “Static balance is a multidimensional issue and there are numerous causes, such as neurological disease, orthopedic issues, vision, spatial issues, a sedentary lifestyle, reaction time, cognition, and other health problems. If it is difficult to balance on one leg, you should think about your overall health and fitness.”

In those that failed, there was a higher proportion of people who were obese, had heart disease, high blood pressure, or unhealthy blood fat profiles. Type 2 diabetes was three times more common in this group.

Numerous factors can cause balance issues.

“Balance can be affected by spinal stenosis, pinched nerves, or radiculopathies,” Dr. Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “Long-term alcohol use can also cause balance issues due to atrophy of the cerebellum portion of the brain. Inner ear issues could also cause balance issues associated with dizziness, vertigo, or feeling like the world is spinning.”

The recent study was observational only, so the scientists did not establish cause and effect.

The researchers said that the balance test provides valuable feedback for the patient and health professionals regarding their mortality risk.

“Although the study doesn’t demonstrate a direct cause-effect relationship, it does appear to show another possible tool physicians can use to help counsel patients about their overall health,” Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, a primary care sports medicine physician, told Healthline. “Similar tools for measuring depression symptoms, sleep, walking speed, and falls, are useful to help monitor patients.”

In 2010, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a review of studies looking at simple everyday tasks and the risk of mortality:

  • 14 studies looked at grip strength and found that the rate of death for the weakest people was 1.67 times greater than the strongest group
  • Five studies looked at walking speed and indicated that the rate of death for the slowest walkers was 2.87 times more than the fastest group
  • Five studies that examined how long it took people to get out of a chair found that the slowest had a rate of death almost twice of the quickest group

The researchers reviewing the studies did indicate that a possible link is that these tasks are indicators of general health. Those in poor health would have more difficulty than those in good health.

“It’s essential to identify health problems that could be negatively affecting balance and correct them if possible,” said Rivadeneyra. “If the patient is healthy, balance can be improved with practice or focused physical therapy to improve strength, endurance, and coordination.”