If you’re hearing isn’t as good as it used to be, you already know that making a simple phone call can sometimes be difficult. Untreated hearing loss also has more serious dangers—increased risk for dementia, depression and even cardiovascular disease, to name a few.
Here’s another risk you might not know about. The sounds that you hear (or don’t hear) can strongly affect your risk of falling. Even mild hearing loss—the kind that can make conversations challenging—can nearly triple the risk.
Yet when doctors evaluate patients who have suffered falls—the leading cause of deadly injury for older Americans—they tend to focus on vision, neuropathy in the feet or bone problems, without giving a second thought to hearing, says Maura Cosetti, MD, director of the Ear Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. That’s a mistake.
People who can’t hear normal background sounds (such as music, the clatter of dishes, etc.) are more likely to have balance problems than those with healthy hearing, according to recent research led by Dr. Cosetti and Anat Lubetzky, PhD, assistant professor of physical therapy at New York University in New York City. The research was published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.
We all use sound information to keep ourselves balanced, especially in cases where other senses—such as vision or proprioception (our awareness of the position and movement of the body)—are compromised, she explains.
Sadly, even though one in three older adults has some degree of hearing loss, about 85% don’t use hearing aids or get other forms of treatment.
Important: People who notice symptom of hearing loss—muffled sounds, tinnitus or a sensation that one or both ears are blocked—should get a hearing test. Medicare and most private insurers pay for annual audiologic evaluations, along with some hearing-related tests.
And don’t assume that you’re too young to have hearing problems. Significant age-related hearing loss can begin as early as age 55…or even earlier if you’ve regularly been exposed to loud music or other loud environments, or take medications, such as certain antibiotics (including gentamicin) and chemotherapy drugs (including cisplatin and carboplatin), that are considered “ototoxic”—that is, known to cause hearing loss.
Researchers are planning additional studies to confirm whether hearing aids and other treatments for hearing loss can function as a “balance aid,” similar to the way a cane can be used to improve balance and decrease fall risk.
In the meantime, if you’re concerned about your risk of falling, get your hearing checked—especially if you’re age 70 or older.
Source: The study “Auditory Input and Postural Control in Adults: A Narrative Review,” conducted by researchers at the Ear Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and New York University, both in New York City, and published in JAMA Otolaryngology‑Head & Neck Surgery.