Michele DiStefano, AuD, CCC-A Director, Shelley and Steven Einhorn Audiology Ctr.
What better time than Fall Prevention Awareness Month to put a spotlight on the link between falls and untreated hearing loss? It's an issue that comes up frequently in my consultations with clients and in the educational sessions I have with seniors and health care professionals in the community. Here are my key takeaways.
Link Between Falls and Hearing Loss: What We Know
Research now clearly shows that untreated hearing loss in adults is associated with an increased risk of falls. The data, in fact, suggests a 3-times greater risk of falling if you have an untreated hearing loss, as compared to your counterparts.
A major reason for this is that your balance system is within your inner ear. So if there is any loss or damage to the inner ear, it's going to affect your balance. Your balance and hearing also share a common nerve pathway to the brain. You might feel slightly unsteady or you might experience vertigo or dizziness. Any of these issues can contribute to falls.
Here are other factors that can play a role:
Spatial Awareness - We need input from our vision and hearing to help us know where we are in a given space and setting. If you're not getting good input auditorily and you're not able to really judge where you are in space, your risk of falling can increase.
Navigating Safely - We also need input from surrounding sounds to navigate whatever setting we're in safely. If you can't hear that someone's walking up behind you, or you're not aware of a bicycle coming alongside you, you're at a greater risk of falling. Your brain uses those auditory cues to navigate the world around you.
Working Harder to Hear - Untreated hearing loss requires our brains to work harder at trying to hear. That means much of the mental energy that would otherwise go towards helping us understand where we are in space is instead working in overdrive to help us hear. That increases our risk of falling, much like when we are tired or fatigued.
What this Means to You (or a Loved One)
It's imperative to get a comprehensive hearing evaluation as soon as you realize you're having some difficulty hearing. Or when a loved one tells you that you're having difficulty hearing. The greater the degree of hearing loss, the greater your risk of falls.
Living with an untreated hearing loss is also associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline, dementia and social isolation. So as soon as you're noticing any difficulty, you really need to reach out to an audiologist for a full hearing evaluation.
It's important to note that while treating hearing loss can reduce the risk of falling, it may not completely eliminate the risk of falling or experiencing imbalance or dizziness. The damage to the inner ear causing the hearing loss may have also damaged the balance (vestibular) system. It’s important if you do experience ongoing dizziness or imbalance feelings that you see out care from an otologist who can evaluate you and determine the cause of the dizziness.
Other Health Impacts of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is associated with a other health issues and medical conditions in adults, in addition to falls:
Heart Disease or Circulation Issues
Cognitive Decline and Dementia
Social Isolation and Depression
If you have any of the above conditions, we recommend that you get a hearing screening and take the appropriate follow-up steps. In fact, at CHC we suggest an annual hearing test for all adults. That's the only way to ensure your brain is getting the auditory input it needs to maintain word recognition and proper cognitive function. Hearing aids can not only help you hear better, they can improve your overall wellness and quality of life.
If you have concerns about your hearing loss or that of a loved one's, a good first step is to take our online hearing screening. If the results suggest the need for a comprehensive hearing test, don't delay in contacting us to request an appointment with a CHC audiologist or receive a referral in your area. Your health depends on it.
Thank you for turning to CHC for your hearing health news and services. We look forward to hearing from you.
CHC's Fall Prevention Tip Sheet
Bone Specialist on Fall Prevention and Hearing Loss
Ruth Bernstein on Fall Prevention and Hearing Loss
NCOA's Fall Prevention Resources