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Prevent falls due to untreated hearing loss this winter

Snowy winter weather can be both beautiful and burdensome, depending upon your perspective. But for people with hearing loss, icy and snowy conditions can be especially concerning. While people in general are more likely to fall during the winter due to unsalted sidewalks and hidden sheets of ice, people with hearing loss are more likely to fall than others.

In fact, in a recent study, otologist and epidemiologist Frank Lin, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that hearing loss is a risk factor for falling. He used data from 2,017 participants ages 40 to 69 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey database that examined their balance, assessed their hearing and asked whether or not they had fallen in the past year.

hearing loss and falls

Through this database information, Dr. Lin determined that people with a 25-decibel hearing loss - a mild hearing loss - were three times as likely to have a history of falling than other people. For every 10-decibel increase in hearing loss, a person's chances of falling increased 1.4 fold.

Dr. Lin hypothesized that this is because people with untreated hearing loss might not have the best awareness of their environment, making tripping on something and falling more likely than for others. Also, hearing loss adds a cognitive load - it takes a lot of work to try to hear and to focus on hearing, and Lin said this might take away from focusing on other tasks:

"Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding," Lin said. "If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait."

Also, balance problems and hearing loss are related, though one does not usually cause the other. People with Meniere's Disease, which affects both hearing and balance, are especially at risk.

Here are some things you can do to protect yourself and reduce your chances of slipping and falling during the winter:

  • Have your hearing loss treated as soon as possible, or before winter rolls around. Many people can benefit from the use of hearing aids to improve their communication and relationships, and also to potentially give them an added source of protection from falls.
  • Have your vision checked once a year or if you sense that you've had a vision change. Vision problems plus hearing loss can make the chance of a fall even more likely.
  • Exercise regularly and ask your doctor for recommendations for routines and stretches that improve coordination and balance and strengthen muscles. Tai chi is one good option for older adults.
  • Take extra precautions if you are on medications that make you dizzy.
  • Make sure you have sufficient lighting and railings, especially if you have steps up to your front door.
  • If you can't do it yourself or are worried about falling, recruit a family member or neighbor to shovel and salt your walks and driveways as soon as possible each time it snows.
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