Hearing Loss and Injury-Causing Falls

Last update on Sep, 22, 2021

Can hearing aids make a difference?

Non-fatal injury-causing falls among adults 65 and older cost the U.S. health care system about $50 billion annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Medical costs related to fatal falls add up to another $754 million. For health insurers and consumers, the financial burden is staggering. The CDC estimates that medical care related to non-fatal falls extracts $29 billion from Medicare, $12 billion from private or out-of-pocket payers and $9 billion from Medicaid.

These staggering costs should come as no surprise, considering that more than one out of four older Americans experiences a fall each year, says the CDC.

There are many potential risk factors for falls, ranging from diminished eyesight and muscle weakness, to diabetes and heart disease. One risk factor that hasn’t received widespread attention is hearing loss, a health condition affecting approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 and nearly half of those older than 75, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

Research conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine links hearing loss with an elevated risk of injury-causing falls. In their study of 2,017 individuals ages 40 to 69, Johns Hopkins researchers found that a 25-decibel hearing loss (classified as mild) was associated with a three-fold higher risk of falling, compared to someone with normal hearing. Every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 1.4 fold.

Experts point to a number of possible explanations for the link between hearing loss and falls. One is that hearing-impaired individuals possess reduced environmental awareness (what’s going on around them) or less spatial awareness (relationship to other people or objects around them). Cognitive overload may be another factor — the brain is devoting excessive mental resources to hearing, at the expense of maintaining balance.

Potential benefits of hearing loss treatment

Hearing loss treatment appears to play a role in maintaining balance and preventing catastrophic falls. A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that older adults who used hearing aids within three years of a hearing loss diagnosis had a 13% lower risk of being treated for fall-related injuries, compared to non-hearing aid wearers.

At Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, another study showed that amplification helped test participants with maintaining balance. Specifically, patients with hearing aids in both ears performed better on standard balance tests when their devices were turned on, compared with when they were off.

“The participants appeared to be using the sound information coming through their hearing aids as auditory reference points or landmarks to help maintain balance,” said senior author Timothy E. Hullar, MD, professor of otolaryngology at the School of Medicine. “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.”

Improving access to hearing health care

Despite growing evidence that hearing loss treatment can reduce the risk of injury-causing falls, millions of Americans do not receive the help they need due to the stigma associated with wearing hearing aids, denial of hearing loss, high cost of hearing aids and lack of hearing care coverage.

In recent years, many health insurers, especially those offering Medicare Advantage plans, have improved access to hearing health care by adding a hearing benefit to their portfolios. However, not all hearing benefits are equal, which is why it’s important to choose a partner with deep expertise and a proven track record in hearing health care, especially with engaging members to overcome barriers to treat hearing loss.

“By extending effective and affordable hearing health care to even more people through routine screenings and insurance coverage, we can substantially narrow the gap, bringing meaningful reductions in the incidence and cost of falls,” states Thomas Tedeschi, Au.D., FNAP, Chief of Audiology, Amplifon Hearing Health Care.

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