Injury-causing falls cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $50 billion in 2015, reports the Wiley Online Library. By 2020 the financial toll for older adult falls may reach $67.7 billion, according to the National Council on Aging (NCOA). These staggering costs become plausible when you consider that one out of four Americans age 65-plus experiences a fatal or non-fatal fall each year. In fact, the NCOA reports that an older adult receives emergency room treatment for a fall every 11 seconds.
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.
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. The chance of falling increases by 1.4 for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.
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.