Hearing Loss and Falls

Time to Read: 4 minutes

Senior couple walking on the beach in fall season-1Hearing loss affects more than just the ability to hear.

It is also strongly associated with cognitive function as well as depression and social isolation. 

But that is not the only relationship between hearing and other aspects of your health and well being.

There is increasing evidence to show that hearing loss also increases the risk of falls.

The older you are, the more likely you are to suffer falls and that may result in head and hip injuries which may take you longer to recover from.

In fact more than one-third of people over the age of 65 fall each year and are the most common cause of injury-related hospital admissions.

Even a mild hearing loss can increase your risk of an accidental fall by nearly three times. And this risk may rise by 140% with every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health found that people with a 25-decibel hearing loss, classified as mild, were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. 

Every additional 10-decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 1.4 fold. This finding still held true, even when researchers accounted for other factors linked with falling, including age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease and vestibular function. Even excluding participants with moderate to severe hearing loss from the analysis didn't change the results.

What is the connection between hearing and balance?

There is a lot of speculation on the connection between hearing and falls.

They include:

  • Split attention. Hearing loss causes your brain to look at other ways to understand conversation  such as lipreading. This draws resources from all the other things your brain needs to do which may result in a lapse in concentration which could cause you to fall.
  • Using hearing to gauge spatial awareness. With compromised hearing there may be increased risk of bumping into things and losing balance and stability. 
  • Age-related issues with the vestibular system. The receptors in your inner ear that help you orient your direction get less keen over time resulting in difficulties maintaining balance

How can hearing aids help prevent falls?

Elderly couple doing pilates class at the gym with a group of diverse younger people balancing on the gym ball with raised arms to tone their muscles in an active retirement concept-1Hearing aids help prevent falls for the very same reason why hearing loss contributes to falls.

Maximised hearing using hearing aids means your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to hear and process sounds and conversations, giving your brain more resources to devote to keeping you upright.

As a result, you also have better auditory cues, which help you orient your location.

Researchers have found patients score higher on standard balance tests when their hearing aids were worn in both ears and turned on, compared with when the hearing aids are turned off. 

According to a 2014 study, researchers realised that participants seemed to use the sound they were getting from their hearing aids as ‘auditory reference points’ to help maintain balance.

“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.”

While it is widely accepted that hearing aids will help your balance, thereby reducing falls, scientists are still looking for ways to better understand how this happens.

What is well known is that conditions which cause dizziness, such as Meniere’s Disease and Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), are associated with hearing loss and that wearing hearing aids help you manage both conditions.

Even if you are in good health and believe you do not have a hearing loss, it is worth getting a hearing test every couple of years after the age of 50. The earlier hearing loss is addressed the more you can benefit from having your best possible hearing now and into the future and reduce the risk of other long term health outcomes.