Every second of every day in the United States an older adult falls, making falls the number one cause of injuries and deaths from injury among older Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
There are many contributors to falls. Individuals may not be able to see well or their reflexes might not be as sharp as they once were. Medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, irregular thyroid, or problems with nerves, feet or blood vessels can impact balance, as can some medications. Other causes of falls include safety hazards in the person’s home or community environment, such as stairs, throw rugs or slippery weather conditions.
But did you know that hearing loss also is a significant risk factor for falls?
Hearing Loss Linked to Three-Fold Risk of Falling
Several studies have linked untreated hearing loss to an increase in the risk of falls. One of the most significant studies conducted to determine the connection between untreated hearing loss and falls used data from the 2001–2004 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
This survey has regularly collected health data from thousands of Americans since 1971. More than 2,000 survey participants between the ages of 40 to 69 had their hearing tested and responded to the question, “Have you fallen during the past year?” Researchers also tested participants’ vestibular function in order to determine if the balance part of the inner ear was being affected by hearing loss.
The lead researchers reported that people with mild hearing loss (25 decibels) were nearly three times as likely to have a history of falling. As a point of reference, 25 decibels is about the sound level of a whisper. Every additional 10 dB of lost hearing meant a 1.4-fold increased risk of falling.
Even after other factors (age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease and vestibular function) were considered, these findings held true. Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins who conducted this and several other studies on the broader implications of hearing loss, has suggested the following possible reasons for the link to falls:
- People who can’t hear well might not have good awareness of their overall environment, increasing the potential to trip and fall.
- Cognitive load increases in those with hearing loss. The brain is overwhelmed with demands on its limited resources to maintain balance and gait, while straining to hear and process auditory input.
- Cochlear disorders may include vestibular dysfunction, leading to poor balance.
If you have fallen recently, you might have to have your hearing checked to be sure you’re hearing your best. If you have hearing loss, be sure to wear your hearing aids, or if you don’t wear hearing aids, talk with an audiologist to see if you might benefit from them.
If you are diagnosed with a dizziness or balance issue, be sure to get it taken care of. This also puts you at increased risk for falling.
Danielle Dorner, Au.D., vestibular audiologist, is experienced in working with patients suffering from a wide range of dizziness and balance problems. She offers comprehensive vestibular evaluations at our Northland and Overland Park Clinics using the latest technology, including the Video Head Impulse Test (vHIT) and rotary chair.