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.