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Hearing Loss and the Increased Risk of Falls

by Zhanneta Shapiro
written by
Older cheerful man falling on sidewalk while woman helps him up

One of our roles as audiologists is to help our patients better connect and communicate with the world around them. We care deeply about our patients and treating their auditory system so they can lead better lives. Our responsibility includes educating patients about the benefits of treatment, as well as the risks of leaving them untreated.

For the elderly in particular, one such risk involves the increased chance of falls due to hearing loss.

Facts on falling

People 65 or older commonly fall. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one out of four older adults falls each year. These falls often result in emergency room visits, broken bones, traumatic brain injuries, hospitalizations or even death. In fact, death rates for the elderly from falling increased 30 percent from 2007 to 2016. In addition, falls total more than $50 billion each year in medical costs.

Falling also creates a heavy emotional burden for the elderly. They fear falling because of the risk of injury, but also because of embarrassment and the desire to remain independent. They might limit excursions and social activities because of this fear, which results in physical decline and social isolation.

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Hearing loss is one of several factors causing falls. Even a mild degree of hearing loss triples the risk of an accidental fall. And this risk increases by 140 percent for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.

As falls in the elderly continue to increase, we need to address and treat every possible contributing factor.

How hearing loss affects balance

There are three major hypotheses for how hearing loss affects balance.

Hearing loss makes people less aware of their environment, so they don’t notice other people, pets or activities going on around them. In addition, hearing loss can decrease spatial awareness, so being able to gauge where their body is in relation to objects around them gets trickier. Finally, hearing loss causes the brain to use more resources for hearing and interpreting speech and sound, so fewer resources go toward gait or balance. These factors can all make patients with hearing loss more likely to lose their balance and fall.

Our responsibility

Unfortunately, hearing loss in the elderly—although common—often remains untreated. Even those with hearing aids might not wear them regularly. Anecdotally, many patients use them when going out, but not while at home or doing daily activities like making dinner or doing laundry.

As audiologists, we must clearly explain to our patients the importance of wearing their hearing aids throughout the entire day. By outlining the risks and benefits, we can educate our patients on how hearing affects balance.

We also need to continue trying to educate the public about the myriad benefits of hearing aids, even for mild hearing loss. The negative impacts of hearing loss are wide-reaching, including falls that can cause serious injury or death. Addressing hearing loss is a critical piece of reducing the risk of falls for seniors and helping them live independently, and longer.

Editor’s note: World Hearing Day is Sunday, March 3. Sponsored by the World Health Organization, this year’s theme says to “Check your hearing!”

Zhanneta Shapiro, AuD, CCC-A, co-founder Audiology Island, also serves as adjunct professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center at Brooklyn College. info@audiologyisland.com

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