Another downside for hearing loss
Hearing loss has been linked with a variety of medical, social and cognitive ills, including dementia. However, says otologist Frank Lin, recent research shows that hearing loss may also be a risk factor for another huge public health problem: falls.
To determine whether hearing loss and falling are connected, Lin joined up with Luigi Ferrucci of the National Institute on Aging. Together, they used data from the 2001 to 2004 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a research program that has periodically gathered health data from thousands of Americans since 1971. During those years, thousands of adults age 40 to 69 had their hearing tested and answered questions about whether they had fallen over the past year.
Their study 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.
Lin says that he and Ferrucci aren’t sure why hearing loss and falling are linked, but one possibility 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 is that the brain might be overwhelmed with demands on its limited resources.
“Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” Lin says. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”
Lin and his colleagues are currently investigating whether improving hearing in the elderly—through hearing aids and cochlear implants—might improve other problems associated with hearing loss, including falls. By some estimates, he says, finding ways to reduce falls might save millions in health care costs in the United States each year, as well as the health of thousands of people. “If we can prevent even a small fraction of falls by improving hearing,” Lin says, “that could make a huge impact on people’s lives.”