Neuroscientists have known for some time that our sense of balance and proprioception (where our limbs are in relation to the rest of our body) is influenced heavily by our sense of hearing and the inner workings of the ear canal. It should come as no surprise then to see that a new study authored by Dr. Frank Lin, MD, PhD, and Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, MD, PhD, researchers at Johns Hopkins, has found that decreased hearing ability is strongly correlated to an increased risk of falling. What may surprise you, however, is how much the risk increases as hearing degrades.
Utilizing data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (from 2001 to 2004), the research team gathered information on over 2,000 individuals aged 40 to 69. As part of the survey, each participant had their hearing tested and also responded to questions about whether or not they had fallen in the past year. The data revealed that people with a 25-decibel hearing loss (which is classified as mild) were almost three times as likely to suffer a fall based on their history when compared with people who showed no signs of hearing loss. The risk of falling was determined to increase by a multiple of 1.4 for every additional 10-decibel loss past 25.
The research team proposed that the increased risk of falling may be tied to a limiting of one’s awareness of their environment as a result of hearing loss. Moreover, the “cognitive load” of gait and balance may increase and become more taxing as hearing declines. This is something most rehab professionals are well aware of, however, it bears mentioning that patients who have trouble hearing may require extra precaution during ambulation. For more information on this study, you may view the abstract and the full article (login required) at the Archives of Internal Medicine.