What is Ataxia? - Landmark Senior Living


Jan 01 2019

What is Ataxia?

Post by: Joe Gilmore

Every year millions of Americans aged 65 and older fall, in fact one out of four older people each year. Of the millions that fall every year, many of the injuries require hospitalization, including about 300,000 annual hip fractures. There are many causes of falling and miscoordination in seniors, part of the reason is just the adverse effects that come with aging. For example, as we age our balance and strength declines over time.

There are a number of other things that can cause falls in older adults. One such example of this is ataxia. Ataxia ia a group of symptoms that can cause problems with balance, coordination, and speech. A number of different conditions can cause ataxia, including use of alcohol, strokes and multiple sclerosis. A number of different types of ataxia can also be caused by hereditary factors.

What is Ataxia?

A man balancing on a set of rocks at sunset

Ataxia refers to the clumsiness or a loss of balance and coordination that is not due to muscle weakness. Ataxia describes a lack of muscle control and coordination of voluntary movements, like moving around or picking something up.

Ataxia can also affect various other body functions such as speech difficulties, eye movement, and swallowing. Generally, these other problems are a sign of an underlying condition. On the other had, persistent ataxia usually results from damage to the cerebellum, the region of the brain that control muscle coordination.


Ataxia is not a specific disease, but rather it is an umbrella term that refers to a group of neurological disorders that affect balance, coordination, and speech. There are a number of conditions that can cause ataxia, including alcohol abuse, certain medications, stroke, tumor, brain degeneration, and multiple sclerosis.


Some symptoms that ataxia can cause include:

  • Poor coordination
  • Change in speech
  • Unsteady walk and stumbles
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks like eating, typing or putting on clothes

It is recommended that you see a doctor if you are experiencing loss of balance or muscle coordination, are having difficulty walking, or a slurring your speech.

Ataxia and Gait in the Elderly

According to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), problems with walking like ataxia and gait that lead to falls dramatically increases with age, but they are not universal in the elderly. The study says that if these problems do occur it should trigger a search for underlying disease states, many of which can be treated medically and surgically.

Types of Ataxia

Many types of ataxia and some conditions that cause the condition are hereditary caused by a defect in a gene that is present from the start of a person’s life. Different gene defects can also cause different types of ataxia, most of which are progressive. While many types of ataxia have specific signs and symptoms, but each type will normally cause poor coordination.

Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA)

Mutations in many different genes are known to cause the different types of spinocerebellar ataxia. For some types, the gene known to cause this type of ataxia has been identified, while for others the genetic cause is still unknown. According to the National Institute of Health, the causes of about 40 to 25 percent of cases are still unknown.

Some types of this ataxia is inherited caused by repetitions in a segment of DNA that is repeated a number of times. Normally these repeats would not typically cause any problems, however a greater than normal number of repeats can interfere with the function of some genes.

According to the AAN, spinocerebellar ataxias normally presents itself before the age of 65, but some spinocerebellar ataxias can become present later in life.

There are currently no known cures for SCA, but the best treatment options will vary by symptoms and personal details. Physical therapy is one method that can help strengthen muscles, while devices like canes and wheelchairs can assist in mobility. Medications can also be used for people with other symptoms like tremors, muscle spasms, and other things.

Episodic Ataxia

Like the name suggests, episodic ataxia comes and goes at random times and may last from a few second to a several hours. During an episode, affected people may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and migraines. An attack can cause seizures, muscle weakness, and sometimes paralysis of one side of the body.

Like most types of ataxia, episodic ataxia may be caused by a mutation in several of the genes and may be inherited. Treatment for episodic ataxia can include medication that can reduce or eliminate symptoms and in some cases, symptoms can improve or disappear on their own.

Friedreich Ataxia (FA)

Friedreich Ataxia is a rare and inherited disease that causes progressive nervous damage and leads to movement problems. It usually begins in childhood, and gets worse over time, however, it is now recognized to have some variants that can have onset in later years according to the NIH.

This type of ataxia is one that is known to lead to problems in the heart and spine, and people with the condition will also develop diabetes. Like many other forms of ataxia, there are no cures for FA.

The disorder is named after Nikolaus Friedreich, who described and discovered the condition in the 1860s.

In Conclusion

As we age, falling becomes more of a health hazard. Not only are falls more likely due to the decline in balance and strength that comes with increasing age, they can also be more harmful as bone density and becomes more prevalent. There are a number of other factors that can increase the likelihood of falls, one such example is ataxia, a group of symptoms that have an underlying cause. The symptoms will generally affect balance, coordination, and speech. Aging can be hard and living alone can be dangerous for some who are struggling with health risks like ataxia. If you are afraid that you or a loved one may be at risk for falls or other health problems, it may be beneficial to look into assisted living facilities. At Landmark Senior Living, we can give all of our residents the medical attention they require while providing them with fun, social activities as well.

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