Hearing loss is not typically considered a risk factor for incident falls, but previous reports of audiometric hearing loss and incident falls led Drs. Frank R. Lin and Luigi Ferrucci, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the National Institute on Aging, respectively, to investigate. The objective of their study, “Hearing Loss and Falls Among Older Adults in the United States,” was to investigate that association. The connection between falls and hearing loss is intriguing, as hearing loss is common among older adults, but remains largely undertreated in older adults.
The study included a total of 2,017 participants aged 40 to 69 in the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2001 to 2004 who underwent an audiometric assessment and fall history survey. About 14.3 percent of the participants had at least a mild hearing loss (a 25-dB loss of sensitivity), and 4.9 percent had reported falling in the past year.
The study confirmed that hearing loss is a significant factor in incident falls, as a mild hearing loss made patients nearly three times as likely to have reported a fall in the prior year.
For every 10-dB increase in hearing loss, there was a 1.4-fold increase in the odds of a fall in the preceding year. Restricting the analysis to only those participants with a hearing loss of 40 dB or less did not affect the magnitude of the study results. The findings by Lin and Ferrucci are consistent with previous research linking hearing loss to an increased risk of falls.
Lin and Ferrucci surmise that the association observed in this study might mean that cochlear and vestibular dysfunction are related, or that the effects of hearing loss require the lion’s share of an individual’s cognitive load and shared attention. Hearing loss may affect spatial awareness and where the body is in position to other objects around it. Resources that maintain posture and body control require cognitive resources that may be impaired by hearing loss, throwing off an individual’s balance in real-world situations. Such cognitive impairment may increase the risk of falling.
Regardless of their cause, falls are of significant public health importance — and so is hearing loss. The associations between hearing loss and cognitive impairment do not end at this study, as research on the subject is ongoing. Better hearing health means a higher quality of life for patients, their families, and their friends — and that means good things for our entire local community.