One of the most significant studies conducted to determine the connection between untreated hearing loss and falls utilized data from the 2001–2004 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This survey has regularly collected health data from thousands of Americans since 1971.
More than 2,000 survey participants between the ages of 40 to 69 had their hearing tested and responded to the question, “Have you fallen during the past year?”
Researchers also tested participants’ vestibular function in order to determine if their balance was being affected by their hearing loss.
The lead researchers reported that people with mild hearing loss (25 decibels) were nearly three times as likely to have a history of falling. Every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss meant an increased 1.4-fold risk of falling.
Even after other factors (age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease and vestibular function) were considered, the findings held true.
Falls are responsible for numerous injuries and deaths in Australia. People who fall commonly experience brain injuries, hip and other bone fractures. Beyond the human cost, these serious conditions generate millions of dollars in healthcare expenses due to extended hospital stays, surgical interventions, and related treatments.
Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist who conducted this and several other studies on the broader implications of hearing loss, suggests the following possible reasons for the link to falls:
- People who can’t hear well might not have good awareness of their overall environment, increasing the potential to trip and fall.
- Cognitive load increases in those with hearing loss. The brain is overwhelmed with demands on its limited resources to maintain balance and gait, while straining to hear and process auditory input.
- Cochlear disorders may include vestibular dysfunction, leading to poor balance.
Hearing loss and increased risk of falling is normally associated with old age but it is not only senior people who suffer from hearing loss. Poor hearing is widespread across all age groups. Today, young people increasingly have hearing impairments too – excessively loud music listened to via headphones, at concerts and nightclubs is having a major impact. Construction workers, ambulance drivers, DJs and factory workers: these are all examples of professions where loud noise can have a lasting and damaging impact.