Hearing Loss and Falls

Hearing Loss and Falls

Rex Banks, Au.D. Reg. CASLPO | Doctor of Audiology
Director, Hearing Health, Quality & Knowledge Enterprise

older woman with cane falling outsideIn the past few years, a growing body of research shows that acquired hearing loss is linked to a host of other health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline, chronic kidney disease and depression. One area that is gaining increased attention is the connection between hearing loss and falling.

A recent study done by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the National Institute of Aging found that older adults with a 25-decibel hearing loss (classified as mild) were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. Furthermore, every additional 10-decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 140%. 

There are few reasons that may explain why hearing loss is associated with an increased risk of falling:

1. The part of the inner ear that provides sensory information about spatial orientation, motion and equilibrium (the vestibular system) has a shared location with the part of the inner ear responsible for hearing (the cochlea). There may be connected dysfunctions between the two causing an increased of risk of falling.

2. Decreased hearing may also directly limit one’s access to auditory cues that are needed for environmental awareness. For example, if you can’t hear your footsteps, you may be less likely to sense where you are positioned in relation to other things around you, causing an increased chance of tripping and falling.

3. It actually takes a lot of concentration to maintain your balance. Researchers think that cognitive overload (where the brain has too many tasks to handle at one time) may play a part in falling. For the most part, the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. People with acquired hearing loss have to use more of their mental resources to hear and interpret speech and other sounds. In doing this, they may have to use more of their “brain resources” to hear, which shifts their focus and leaves fewer resources left for maintaining balance.

Can hearing aids help?

You may ask if hearing aids can help improve balance. There is some initial small-sample research that suggests hearing aids provide auditory reference points (or landmarks) to help maintain balance. It’s similar to using your eyes to know where you are in space. If you turn the lights out, you may sway some and have trouble knowing where you are compared to things around you. The same might be true for hearing – “opening your ears” using hearing aids may make you more alert and provides information to aid in maintaining balance. Further large-scale studies on the link between hearing loss and accidental falls are ongoing.

Why does all of this matter? According to the World Health Organization, falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide and adults older than 60 years of age suffer the greatest number of fatal falls. In Canada, falls remain the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations among Canadian seniors, and between 20% and 30% of seniors fall each year.
The good news is that falls are preventable.

Some quick tips to prevent from falling include:

  • Clean up clutter
  • Install grab bars and handrails
  • Install brighter bulbs in your home
  • Eliminate slippery surfaces at home
  • Exercise to strengthen your core
  • Repair or remove tripping hazards
  • Avoid wearing loose fitting clothing
  • Wear shoes - not just socks
  • Live on one level
  • Check for medications that cause dizziness

November is Fall Prevention Month. If you've never had your hearing checked or you think it might be impacting your balance, make an appointment with a CHS audiologist for a hearing test to establish a baseline and to learn more about hearing and balance.