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New research links hearing loss to an increased risk of falls

Contributed by | Thursday, October 8th, 2015

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It has been well-documented that untreated hearing loss can lead to a myriad of health and personal safety issues. But did you know hearing loss can result in an increased risk of falls as well?

A recent study done by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the National Institute of Aging found that hearing loss significantly increases the risk of falls for older people. The news could have far reaching implications when it comes to preventing falls and helping our older generations to to continue live independent lives.   

Establishing the hearing loss study

risk of falling and hearing loss
Research shows a link 
between individuals with
untreated hearing loss and
an increased risk of falling!

In the study, entitled “Hearing Loss and Falls Among Older Adults in the United States” and headed by Dr. Frank Lin from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Luiggi Ferrucci from NIOA, 2017 people between the ages of 40 and 69 were assessed with regard to both hearing and vestibular function. The vestibular function is the balance mechanism of the inner ear that provides sensory information about spatial orientation, motion and equilibrium. 14.3 percent of the participants had hearing loss greater than 25 decibels; and 4.9 percent of those studied reported falling at least once in the past year.

However, what was most surprising was that the researchers determined that even a mild degree of hearing loss tripled the risk of an accidental fall, with the risk increasing by 140 percent for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.

Hearing loss linked to falls

Researchers speculate that there could be a few reasons that hearing loss is associated with an increased risk of falls. One reason could be that with hearing loss have less environmental awareness to people, pets or other things going on around them. Spatial awareness, i.e. where the body is positioned in relation to other people and objects around it, could be another reason for increased falls. And lastly, many researchers point to cognitive overload as a hindrance to balance; simply put, this means that those with hearing loss are using more of their mental resources to hear and interpret speech and other sounds. Since mental resources aren’t a bottomless well, that means those with hearing loss have fewer resources left over to dedicate to maintaining balance.

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

A study done by researchers at the Washington University of St. Louis came at the problem from a different angle, yet the results support the conclusions of the study at Johns Hopkins.

Are hearing aids the answer?

Researchers wanted to find out if the use of hearing aids could help improve balance, and conversely if the lack of hearing aids could negatively affect it. With their eyes covered, thus being unable to use visual cues to maintain balance, the participants were given increasingly complex tests that involved standing with feet together on a foam pad, standing with one foot in front of the other, etc. Although a small number of subjects did just as well in the easier tests whether hearing aids were turned off or on, as the tests became more difficult all of the subjects had trouble maintaining balance when the hearing aids were turned off.

The results were conclusive: hearing aids made such a definitive difference in balance that in the heel to toe test, for example, participants with their hearing aids turned on were able to maintain balance for twice as long as when their hearing aids were turned off.

Although it was a smaller study than the one at Johns Hopkins, with the researchers only assessing 14 people between the ages of 61 and 90, the results indicate that sound information alone, independent of the vestibular system, may play a larger role in maintaining balance than was previously thought.

Hearing devices improve alertness

“We don’t think it’s just that wearing hearing aids makes the person more alert,” said Dr. Timothy Huller, professor of otolaryngology at the School of Medicine. “The participants appeared to be using the sound information coming through their hearing aids as auditory reference points or landmarks to help maintain balance. It’s a bit like using your eyes to tell where you are in space. If we turn out the lights, people sway a little bit, more than they would if they could see. This study suggests that opening your ears also gives you information about balance.”

When it comes to health and safety, the importance of balance in older people cannot be underestimated. Falls are the leading cause of accidental death in adults over the age of 65; according to the Center for Disease Control, 20,000 older people died from fall injuries in 2009. In the same time period, there were 2.2 million non-fatal injuries from falls reported in emergency departments across the country, and medical costs from falls are in the neighborhood of $30 billion a year.

Further studies on the link between hearing loss and accidental falls are expected in the near future, but in the meantime the hope is that the new findings can lead to a way to decrease the risk of falls for older people and lead to increased longevity and better quality of life overall.

If you've never had your hearing check or you think it might be impacting your balance, find a hearing care professional in your area and establish a baseline test today!

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