Dancing Sky: Hearing Loss and Falls - A Balancing Act

Submitted by Connie Troska
Crookston Times

As we get older, hearing loss and balance often decline. But we don’t often think about the two having an effect on each other. But it turns out they do. As we age, we are at an increased risk of falls due to hearing loss. September is Falls Prevention Month, and in this monthly article, we will look deeper into why hearing loss can cause falls.

When our hearing declines, it affects our balance. In a study done by John Hopkins Medical Institutions in partnership with the National Institute on Aging, “…a 25-decibel hearing loss – equivalent to going from normal to mild hearing loss – triples your chance of falling.” The risk increases by 140% for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.

But why? How can hearing loss cause a person to fall? It turns out, it’s all in the brain. Hearing loss causes the brain to use more resources for hearing and interpreting sound and speech. So it takes more brain energy. And while your mental capacities are focused on that, it reduces the mental resources available for balance.

According to Frank Lin, MD, Ph.D., Otologist for John Hopkins School of Medicine, “Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding.”

The CDC estimates that one-third of Americans, age 65 and older, fall every year. Even if a person is not hurt, it can be terrifying. This starts a cycle - if you move less, you become weaker. If you become weaker, you move less, and this cycle increases the risk of falls. Also, hearing loss is linked to an increase in depression, and depression is linked to more falls, and those falls make the depression worse. So, hearing loss can have an impact on our health.

However, hearing loss in the elderly often remains untreated. Also, many people with hearing aids may not wear them regularly. They may use them only when they go out or are doing something with other people. You may think, “Why do I need to wear them while I’m making my dinner or doing laundry?”

Without hearing aids, people are less aware of their surroundings. They don’t notice people, pets, or activities going on around them. They can be easily startled. And there is a decrease in spatial awareness. Being able to gauge where the body is in relation to an object can be tricky. For example, by the time a person hears their dog, that dog may be right underneath their feet.

There are things you can do to reduce your risk of falling. First, talk to your doctor about having a hearing test done. Hearing loss can begin as early as 40 years old, so have a hearing test as soon as you are able gives you a baseline that can help you years down the road. Hearing aids can be expensive, so speak with your doctor about your options.

Use your hearing aids while you are home, even if no one else is there. They allow you to be more aware of your surroundings and reduce the risk of falls.

Addressing hearing loss is vital to reducing the risk of falls for seniors and helping them live independently for a longer period.

Connie Troska is a Program Developer with the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging.