As an audiologist, it comes as no surprise that even in the most casual conversations, I hear people talk about a family member or friend who needs to do something about their hearing loss but just hasn’t taken that first step. We all probably know someone close to us who likely has hearing difficulty. While this can make communication a problem, it also has implications for other health issues. There is a large pool of research suggesting hearing loss is a significant contributor to falls among older individuals. But did you know that one in every five falls results in an injury for an older adult like a broken bone or head injury, and about 3 million older adults are treated in emergency rooms for a fall injury each year?1
We know that the incidence of hearing loss increases as we get older.2 Hearing loss often leads to social isolation, which leads to less movement, which possibly leads to an even greater fall risk. Since our hearing and balance systems are linked together to provide information to our brain, having access to auditory cues can help those with poor balance. Even a mild hearing loss can increase your risk of falls. Individuals aged 40-69 with a mild hearing loss of 25-40 decibels (dB) show three times the risk of a fall than those with normal hearing, and for every 10 dB of hearing loss, there is a 1.4 fold increased risk of falling.3
What are the reasons for the increased risk of fall from hearing loss? If your hearing loss is causing you to work harder to understand and interpret sound, it takes away brain resources that could be used for balance and depth perception. Age-related hearing loss is also linked to declines in the vestibular, or balance sense. There is evidence that our sense of balance begins to decline around age 40, as approximately a third of all individuals over forty cannot pass a basic balance test. Our sense of balance is a combined effort of multiple inputs from vision, eyes, muscles, joints, and what we hear.
Fall prevention can come from taking care of your vision, motor skills, and hearing. Walking and doing balance exercises can help to strengthen muscles with as little as two 15-20 minutes sessions per week. An annual vision check is recommended, and if necessary, updating your lens prescription in your glasses or contacts. Along with the above, schedule a hearing check-up to be sure both your hearing and your vestibular (balance) systems are working well. If your hearing test indicates you need hearing aids, have a discussion with your hearing professional to learn about the options that would work best for you including hearing aid, implants, or other assistive technology. In summary, better hearing can contribute to not only better overall health but can reduce your risk of falls and hospitalization.