As we age, we become more concerned about falling, and rightly so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 4 older adults experience falls each years. These falls can result in injuries, broken bones, visits to the emergency room, hospitalization and even death. Falls are reported to be the leading cause of accidental death in adults over the age of 65.
Recent research (Lin, et.al 2017) has shown that even a mild hearing loss tripled an individuals chance of falling. Risk of falling increased by 140% for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.
Two potential reasons for this increased risk are:
- Hearing loss can negatively lesson a person’s awareness of their environment and what is going on around them.
- Hearing loss often results in increased cognitive demands on the brain’s resources (cognitive load)
While we often take gait and balance for granted, research has shown that it is actually very cognitively demanding. As a result, individuals with untreated hearing loss must expend more energy to listen, hear and understand and therefore have fewer cognitive resources available to help with walking and balance.
Researchers then wanted to know if treating sensorineural hearing loss with hearing aids would improve an individuals balance. Researchers at Washington University of St. Louis assessed the balance of individuals with hearing loss both with and without hearing aids. They evaluated subjects balance from simple to more complex balance tasks. They found that a small number of participants performed equally well when presented with simpler tasks either aided or unaided, but that all subjects had more difficulty maintaining balance on the the more difficult tasks when not using hearing aids to address their hearing loss.
As Audiologists, we deal routinely with assessing hearing and balance and providing rehabilitation for these issues and have seen firsthand the negative impact lack of treatment can have on an individual’s quality of life. For this reason, we do want to encourage anyone with hearing loss to have your hearing checked and if possible pursue the proper treatment. For patients who have hearing aids, but don’t wear them routinely, it is important to stress that using your hearing aids all day from the time you get up until the time you go to bed is important to allow for improved hearing and communication, but also to reduce your risk of falls.