Hearing Loss Linked to Risk of Falls
By Nicole Klutz, Au.D., Phonak Audiology Manager
What happens when you try to stand on one foot for 5 seconds? Well, most of us would be able to easily balance for 5 seconds without a wobble. But, what if you tried again with your eyes closed? Most of us will feel a bit less steady.
We all have heard that we eat with our eyes. But, do we balance with our eyes, too? And what about our ears? Can our hearing help prevent us from falling?
Over the past 10 years, hearing loss has been connected to numerous other health conditions, including the increased risk of falls. Research has shown that falls are the leading cause of accidental death in adults over 65.* Furthermore, when hearing loss is a factor, it has been demonstrated that even mild hearing loss is associated with a 3x greater risk of falling. **
Risk of Falls Research
Dr. Frank Lin (John Hopkins) and Dr. Luigi Ferrucci (National Institute on Aging) conducted a comprehensive review of data obtained from 2001 to 2004 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to examine the potential correlation between hearing loss and increased risk of falls.
Over two years, 2,000 middle-aged participants underwent hearing evaluations and answered questions about their experience with falls in the past year. Vestibular function was also tested to assess functionality of the balance system.
“If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.” **
This comprehensive review confirmed the increased risk of falls as a function of increasing degrees of hearing loss. Also identified was the impact of hearing loss on cognitive load and the relationship between cognitive load and falls.
“Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” Lin said in the study. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.” **
The Underlining Reason for Falls
So what happens when your patient is in a busy environment that is challenging and the demand on cognitive load increases? Dr. Lin stated in the research: “The brain must maintain various demands with limited mental resources, and is likely an underlying reason for one’s propensity to fall when suffering from hearing loss.”
Alternately, there may be dysfunction of both the hearing and balance system that impact each other. It’s also possible that access to cues that contribute to environmental awareness are diminished by hearing loss.
“The brain must maintain various demands with limited mental resources, and is likely an underlying reason for one’s propensity to fall when suffering from hearing loss.”
The Gatekeeper to Healthy Aging
When amplification is provided, access to spatial cues in the environment may be re-introduced and/or maintained, providing more sensory input to the brain. This may help to reduce the fall risk in people with hearing loss.
As our understanding the link between hearing and many facets of wellness grows, it highlights the important role hearing care providers play as a gatekeeper to healthy aging. A thorough understanding of the risks associated with hearing loss impacts many aspects of clinical practice from an initial case history to a potential referral.
Appropriate referrals are also an opportunity to build cross-functional relationships in the community that benefit the patient and your business. It is this wholistic approach to patient wellness that will help to position audiologists as a trusted partner in health and wellness.
** Lin FR, Ferrucci L. Hearing loss and falls among older adults in the United States. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:369–371
Nicole joined Phonak in 2013. Originally from the East Coast, she grew up in Maine and moved to the Midwest in 2009 to complete graduate schooling at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. An avid outdoors enthusiast, Nicole spends a majority of her free time in the water, woods or on the road traveling with her two dogs and husband. As a part of the audiology team at Phonak, Nicole enjoys spending time teaching and training on new products and their benefits as well as continuing to build upon the audiological foundation of Phonak.