Do you remember the Life Alert commercials that made famous the phrase, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”? While young people might find those ads rather humorous, falling is no joke. For older people, falling can be a significant fear—and a real risk. Balance naturally declines with age, which makes older people more likely to fall.Hearing also declines with age, and a growing body of research shows that hearing loss can increase the risk of falls. With both balance and hearing in decline as you age, the risk for falls can become high.
How is hearing connected to balance?
According to research, what you hear (and don’t hear) can directly affect your balance. A study of people aged 40 to 69 found that a 25-decibel hearing loss triples your chance of falling. That is the equivalent of going from normal hearing to mild hearing loss. Furthermore, the age range of the study participants (40-69 years of age) is the same range in which many people first experience hearing loss and are not accustomed to guarding against falls.
While the link between hearing loss and balance is still being researched, audiologists have pinned down a few ways they are connected:
- Sound helps you balance. Researchers believe that people with poor balance benefit from auditory cues to help them avoid falls. In addition, stable sounds can help people keep their balance—similar to looking at one spot on the wall in order to help balance. If you have hearing loss and cannot hear those stable sounds, however, you are more likely to lose your balance and fall.
- Hearing uses up brain power, and so does balance. Mental resources are finite. If your brain is using up extra cognitive power to try to interpret sound due to hearing loss, it has less mental resource to assign to balance. Balance is cognitively demanding, so the extra strain of trying to hear with hearing loss can result in a loss of balance.
- Aging causes a decline in your vestibular sense. The vestibular sense is a set of receptors in your inner ear that come into play whenever you move your head. Your vestibular sense is also activated by the downward pull of gravity and helps you feel grounded. However, research shows that the vestibular sense may begin to decline around age 40. Loud low-frequency sounds can damage the inner ear, which can also disrupt your vestibular sense and result in balance (and hearing) problems.
Of course, not all people with age-related hearing loss have inner ear problems, and vice versa.
- Hearing loss is linked to depression and anxiety. Untreated hearing loss increases your risk for depression and anxiety. If you are caught up in these mental issues, you may be less alert and more likely to fall. Furthermore, depression is linked to a greater incidence of falling, and increased falls lead to increased depression, which creates a difficult cycle.
How can you reduce your risk of falling?
Reducing your risk of falls can be simple.
- Stay active. Even activities as simple as walking can help to strengthen your muscles and reduce the risk of falls. Other good forms of exercise include balance exercises, resistance exercises, tai chi, water aerobics, and strength training.
- Get your vision checked. Your sense of balance has many contributing factors, including both vision and hearing. Be sure to keep your eye prescription updated. Tint-changing lenses and bifocals are less appropriate for older people.
- Wear your hearing aid. University of Michigan study found that a first-time hearing aid reduced the risk of fall-related injury by 13 percentage points in the next 3 years.
- Make your home safe. Do a walk-through of your home to make it more fall-proof. Make sure that the tops and bottoms of the stairs are well-lit and ensure that the stair railing is secure. Remove or secure any loose rugs or carpeting. Install grab bars near the toilet and in the shower or bathtub.
- Consider physical therapy. If you are unable to move as you would like, or if you have difficulty performing everyday movements like getting up from your chair, physical therapy may help.
For more information about how you can treat hearing loss and reduce your risk of falls, we invite you to contact our hearing practice today.