Hearing Loss Increases Risk of Falling

Last update on Mar, 16, 2020

The statistics associated with injury-causing falls should be setting off alarm bells throughout U.S. society, starting with the fact that more than one in four Americans over the age of 65 experiences a fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What causes people to fall isn’t always so clear-cut, as the following conversation between a mother and daughter illustrates…

Britney: “Mom, I’m going to leave now, but I want you to be extra careful — no more falls, okay? I’m glad you weren’t seriously hurt, but you might not be so fortunate the next time.”

Penny: “I thought I was being careful. I just don’t know what happened.”

Britney: “Well, Dr. Bartholomew thinks the change in your medication might help. And we got rid of those throw rugs, just to be safe. Oh, and the maintenance guy is coming over tomorrow afternoon to install grab bars in the bathroom.”

Penny: “What did you say? Who’s coming to over to do what?”

Heairng loss is a risk factor for injury-causing falls

As any concerned child would do, Britney is trying to help her mother avoid a catastrophic fall. She started by learning about the many risk factors for injury-causing falls, including certain medications, loose rugs and slippery bathroom surfaces. But Britney missed one possible risk factor — hearing loss. The clue was contained in her mother’s last statement. Although it’s experienced by people of all ages, hearing loss is one of the most common health conditions among older adults, affecting one in three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 and nearly half of those older than 75.

Is it mere coincidence that older adults are also most at risk for falls resulting in injury or death? Perhaps not. Research conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that a 25-decibel hearing loss (classified as mild) was associated with a threefold 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. On the surface, the connection between hearing loss and injury-causing falls may not seem obvious. However, experts point to a number of possible explanations. One is that individuals with hearing loss 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.

Heainrg loss treatment may prevent falls

Now the question becomes: Can the use of hearing aids help prevent injury-causing falls?

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. The researchers used data from nearly 115,000 people over age 66 who had hearing loss and hearing aid coverage through a Medicare health maintenance organization (HMO).

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.”

Make hearing health part of the conversation

Hearing loss treatment could be part of the solution for reducing both the risk of falls and the associated costs. However, a significant portion of people with hearing loss resists getting help because of hearing aid “sticker shock.” Health insurers, especially Medicare Advantage plans, and employers can make hearing aids more affordable by offering a hearing benefit or hearing health care program.

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