With an ageing global population and an expected nine million people over the age of 90 by 2050, there will be significant new pressures on health and care systems around the world in the coming decades.
Improvements in medical care and diagnosis mean that more people are able to live well into older age, with many still being fit and healthy enough to lead an independent and high-quality life. However, a higher number of elderly people will also lead to treatment for illnesses like cancer and dementia being in greater demand.
For both conditions, early diagnosis is crucial for helping to reduce the risk of the long-term impact on health.
A new study has suggested that, for very elderly people, poor balance can be an indicator that they may be at a higher risk of dementia.
The research, conducted by the University of California, found that simple balance tests could help determine if a person is at a higher risk of developing dementia.
Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the study looked at more than 550 people who were over the age of 90 who were already enrolled in a community-based longitudinal project.
The researchers monitored the participants every six months and conducted physical and neurological examinations, as well as asking them to complete cognitive tests. Their overall aim was to measure the impact of ageing and dementia.
At the start of their research, around half of the participants were cognitively impaired - meaning they struggled with thinking or remembering - but did not have dementia. The others demonstrated no cognitive problems.
Over the 2.5 year-study period, the team found that nearly 40 per cent of patients developed dementia. They determined that there was a link between the risk of dementia and those who had scored low on the two different physical performance tests: the standing balance test and the four-metre walking test.
Previous research has found that poor physical performance is linked to a higher risk of dementia in people under the age of 85, but this is the first to show the impact of balance on very elderly people.
According to the authors of the study, testing these functions can help predict who is at the highest risk of developing dementia because walking and standing balance require complex brain activity.
The researchers also suggested that these findings could lead to the development of prevention programs and treatment strategies.
The study highlights the importance of having professionals to determine the underlying cause of balance problems in elderly people. As well as reducing the risk of them suffering a fall, it can also be an opportunity to observe the early signs of dementia or other, more serious, health problems.