The research is clear that an active lifestyle, especially as you age, is important to preventing heart disease, managing your weight and offers many other health advantages, both physical and mental. Now, new research is showing another benefit to staying on the move—active older adults may be less likely to experience hearing loss.
Three studies supported by the National Institute of Aging (NIA) were recently released. All looked at the possible connection between hearing loss and physical activity. In general, they found that older adults who have hearing loss may be more sedentary and more likely to experience worsening physical function than those without hearing loss. This research was published in JAMA Network Open and the Journals of Gerontology, Series A and it suggests that treating hearing loss may be a healthier way for older adults to age.
Monitoring physical activity
Using the results from hearing exams that had been conducted on a subgroup of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) participants ages 60 to 69, a team of investigators from the NIA and Johns Hopkins University examined data from 221 people with normal hearing, 48 with mild hearing loss, and 22 with moderate to severe hearing loss. Each participant wore a motion-based monitor on their hip for a week to capture how long they were engaged in sedentary behavior, light physical activity, and moderate or vigorous activity.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that people with mild to severe hearing loss tended to exercise less than people with normal hearing. The more severe the hearing loss, the more likely that the participant was sedentary for longer during the day. Compared to those with no hearing loss, people with hearing loss were sedentary on average for about 34 more minutes per day.
These findings suggest that those who have hearing loss and move less are at greater risk for health problems than individuals with normal hearing.
Looking at physical function over time
Johns Hopkins University researchers, in collaboration with NIA and others, led a second team investigating the relationship between hearing loss and physical function over time. These researchers analyzed data collected from participants between the ages of 71 and 94 who enrolled in the NIH-funded Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. Of the nearly 3,000 participants, 973 people had normal hearing, 1,170 had mild hearing loss, 692 had moderate loss, and 121 had severe loss.
The researchers analyzed the relationship between hearing loss and physical function. Compared to participants with normal hearing, those with hearing loss were more likely to have worse scores for physical function, balance, and walking speed.
In addition, the researchers monitored the participants during two to three visits over about eight years. Those with hearing loss had a faster rate of physical decline than those with normal hearing. The findings of this study suggest that hearing loss may be associated with worsening physical function over time.
A third team, also led by Johns Hopkins University researchers in collaboration with NIA, used data from 830 adults over age 40 enrolled in the NIA’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). Of the 831 participants, 474 people had normal hearing, 212 had mild hearing loss, and 145 had moderate or severe loss.
As in the ARIC study, those with hearing loss in the BLSA study had worse physical function. Those with moderate or greater hearing loss had a faster decline in physical function over six years than those with normal hearing.
In addition, the third team found that people in the BLSA study who wore hearing aids had better walking endurance than those who did not treat their hearing loss. These findings suggest that it is important to screen for and treat hearing loss to help prevent a decline in physical function.
Why this matters …
It’s well-recognized that hearing loss is more common as we age. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders reports about 2% of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss. The rate increases to 8.5% for adults aged 55 to 64. Nearly 25% of those aged 65 to 74 and 50% of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.
Treating hearing loss typically involves wearing hearing aids and using assistive listening devices. Unfortunately, only about 20 to 25% of individuals diagnosed with hearing loss actually wear hearing aids.
This research shows an association between hearing loss and a decline in physical activity but doesn’t show that hearing loss causes it. More research is needed to further explore the connection between the two.
In the meantime, the best prescription for healthy aging is an active lifestyle, a healthy diet and weight, and if you are diagnosed with hearing loss, wear hearing aids and use assistive listening technology to help you get the most out of life and stay on the move.