When we think of medical tests, we often picture complex machines or multi-step procedures where we wait for lab results. Standing on one leg for 20 seconds doesn't seem to fit the bill, but an article in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke has found that this seemingly simple task can be an important test for brain health.

This important information comes from new research that shows that "struggling to balance on one leg for 20 seconds or longer was linked to an increased risk for small blood vessel damage in the brain and reduced cognitive function" for people who don't present any clinical symptoms and are otherwise in good health. The study included 841 women and 546 men. Their average age was 67.

The lead study author, Yasuharu Tabara, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Center for Genomic Medicine at Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Kyoto, Japan, says, "Individuals showing poor balance on one leg should receive increased attention, as this may indicate an increased risk for brain disease and cognitive decline."

There has been previous research into the connection between gait and physical abilities and the risk of stroke, but this is one of the first in-depth studies to look at the link between standing on one leg and overall brain health. Dr. Tabara notes this test is an "easy way to determine if there are early signs of being at risk for a stroke and cognitive impairment and whether these patients need additional evaluation."

While the study focused on those who are generally healthy and didn't have clinical symptoms indicating there was a problem, there are signs of a stroke that everyone should know. According to the National Stroke Association, "For each minute a stroke goes untreated and blood flow to the brain continues to be blocked, a person loses about 1.9 million neurons." They note that this can "mean that a person’s speech, movement, memory and so much more can be affected." The acronym FAST is used because swift recognition and treatment are so critical:

Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.