Hearing Loss Linked to Risk of Falling

April 26th, 2012

For older adults, falls are a major health problem:  Falls are the leading cause of brain injury among seniors, and are linked to a risk of death due to complications from hip fractures. If we could find a way to prevent falls, it would prevent a lot of pain, suffering, early death, and medical costs. Now, researchers have made a discovery that could lead to fewer falls among the elderly.

Dr. Frank Lin from Johns Hopkins and Dr. Luigi Ferrucci of the National Institute on Aging reviewed five years of information from more than 2,000 people ages 40 to 69. They looked at demographic information, balance, falls, cardiovascular function, vision and hearing. It turns out that the greater the hearing loss, the greater the chance of falling.

According to a Johns Hopkins press release, people with mild hearing loss (25 decibels) were three times more likely to have a history of falling. And every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by an additional 40%.

Why might this be so? One reason is that people who can’t hear well might not have good awareness of their overall environment, making tripping and falling more likely. Another reason might be that hearing loss could overwhelm the brain by making additional demands, or “cognitive load.”

“Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” Dr. Lin says. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”

No matter why hearing loss is linked to falls, it stands to reason that correcting hearing loss could help prevent falls. Many people with hearing loss resist seeking treatment–they don’t want to end up with a hearing aid. That’s more frustrating for the people around them than for the person with hearing loss. Maybe knowing that they could prevent winding up in the hospital after a fall could spur more folks to give in and get a hearing aid. This is one time when vanity could be both expensive an painful.