According to the World Health Organization, falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide. 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.
Studies have demonstrated a strong association between audiometric hearing loss and incident falls. 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.
A number of mechanisms could explain the observed association between hearing loss and falls. There may be concomitant dysfunction of both the cochlear and vestibular sense organs given their shared location within the bony labyrinth of the inner ear. Decreased hearing sensitivity may also directly limit access to auditory cues that are needed for environmental awareness. Finally, the association of hearing loss with falls may be mediated through cognitive load and reduced attentional resources. Attentional resources are critical for maintaining postural control, and decrements in attentional and cognitive resources imposed by hearing loss may impair the maintenance of postural balance in real-world situations and increase the risk of falling.
Falls are preventable, hearing loss is treatable, and we can help!
Lin FR, Ferrucci L. Hearing Loss and Falls Among Older Adults in the United States. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(4):369–371. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.728

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