Hearing Loss Increases Fall Risk for Seniors—Get the Facts

hearing and falls

Many of us experience hearing loss as we get older. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted; all those years of rock concerts can really do a number on your hearing. Other times, it comes in the form of an illness or infection that damages the tiny bones in your ear, thus leading to hearing problems. And sometimes it’s as simple as the things that can come with getting older, such as a particular medication.

Hearing loss by itself can be problematic enough. But did you know that hearing loss affects balance, which increases fall risk for seniors?

A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that even mild hearing loss can triple the risk of the elderly falling; and for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss, that risk goes up by 140%. That’s an enormous jump and one that must be taken quite seriously to institute strong methods of fall prevention.

But why does the fall risk go up so dramatically as hearing diminishes?

There are a few reasons. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association reports three main reasons why hearing loss changes our fall risk[1]:

·         You become less aware of your environment. This means you don’t notice certain things, like other people, pets moving around, or activities happening in your space.

·         You have a decrease in spatial awareness. It makes it tough to figure out where your body is in relation to objects around you.

·         The brain is taxed. As your hearing diminishes, your brain tries to compensate for the loss. That means your brain will pay more attention to trying to hear than it will to balance or gait. This is why you might fall down even if you don’t trip over something.

These are all great reasons to look into a medical alert pendant or watch to help ensure that if you do fall, you can get help no matter where you are. To understand all the reasons, let’s dive deeper into hearing loss.

The Basics of Hearing Loss

According to the Mayo Clinic, about half of those over the age of 65 in the United States have some degree of hearing loss. This hearing loss presents in three types[2]:

·         Conductive, which involves the outer or middle ear

·         Sensorineural, which involves the inner ear

·         Mixed, a combination of the two other types.

To understand more about how hearing works, consider the three tiny bones in the ear:

·         Hammer, which is attached to the eardrum

·         Anvil, which is the center bone in this chain of three

·         Stirrup, which attaches to the opening that connects the middle ear to the inner ear

When sound hits your eardrum, the eardrum vibrates. This triggers a chain reaction of vibration. The force of the vibration increases as it works its way to the inner ear. This transfers the energy of the sound wave to the fluid of the inner ear. It all happens in less than an instant.

When this doesn’t work properly, you start to experience the symptoms of hearing loss, which include:

·         Muffled sounds, including muffled speech

·         Difficulty in understanding words

·         Trouble hearing someone speak if there is a lot of background noise

·         Difficulty with hearing consonants

·         Turning up the volume on the radio or television

·         Withdrawing from conversations as the hearing loss taxes your brain

·         Frequently asking others to repeat themselves

·         Avoiding social settings

In most cases, you can’t reverse hearing loss. However, a hearing specialist can help you with improving what you can hear. Age-related hearing loss is a gradual condition that might sneak up on you. If you have a sudden loss of hearing, seek medical attention right away – this could be due to an illness or injury that could be corrected.

What Causes Hearing Loss?

Simple aging is one of the big reasons for hearing loss. About one-third of adults between the ages of 65 and 70 have some sort of hearing loss, and among those over the age of 75, half of all individuals have problems with hearing[3]. In fact, a study from Frontiers in Neurology suggests that vestibular issues begin at about the age of 40; more than one-third of adults over the age of 40 are unable to pass a balance test.

In addition to the hearing loss we naturally experience as we age, other factors can come into play. Loud, low-frequency sounds for an extended period of time, like pounding drums, can cause some degree of hearing loss by damaging the inner ear[4]. Other issues can include:

·         Damage to the inner ear

·         Buildup of ear wax at the back of the ear canal (which can be easily remedied)

·         Ear infections

·         Abnormal growths or tumors

·         A ruptured eardrum

Obviously, aging is a risk factor for hearing loss. But there are causes, such as[5]:

·         Genetics. You might be more susceptible to damage to the ear if a family member is deaf or hard of hearing.

·         Exposure to loud noises. Long-term damage can occur, such as during a series of rock festivals, or it can happen from a short-term sound, such as a gunshot blast near your ear.

·         Occupational noises. If you work in a factory or in construction, or a similar atmosphere with loud equipment and it’s hard to hear others speak, you might suffer hearing damage.

·         Some medications. Some medications are known to cause temporary problems with hearing. These might include Viagra, chemotherapy drugs, and some antibiotics. You might also develop hearing loss with high doses of pain relievers, loop diuretics, and antimalarial drugs.

·         Illness. Some illnesses can lead to sudden hearing loss, probably due to a high fever.

·         Recreational noises. These can include frequent exposure to the sound of motorcycles, loud music, snowmobiles, carpentry tools, firearms, and jet engines.

Why Hearing Loss Can Lead to Falls

In addition to the reasons listed above, such as losing spatial awareness, there is another big factor to hearing loss and fall risk, and that is that balance and hearing are directly related[6]. Those who already have questionable balance use auditory cues to help them stay on their feet. When those cues are diminished, it makes it tougher to stay upright. Some ear problems that lead to hearing loss can also cause dizziness or vertigo, which are certainly factors in falls. Again, we recommend an affordable alert system with built-in fall detection for those living with these challenges.

The body uses all its senses to determine its place in the world. This includes visual cues, the sense of touch, and hearing. All three of these senses come together seamlessly to improve our balance and keep us steady on our feet. But a problem with any of these systems throws everything off. The key sensory information that our body gets from the inner ear is essential in lessening fall risk. The less sound the inner ear gets, the harder it is for the other senses to work together and figure out where you are in relation to the world around you[7].

How to Reduce Your Risk of Falls

You want to do everything you can to develop fall prevention strategies. The CDC reports that more than one in four Americans over the age of 65 falls each year, and that falling can become part of a vicious cycle: when you fall, it frightens you, which makes you less likely to move around as vigorously as you once did. This in turn leaves you weaker and more likely to fall again.

There are ways to protect yourself from falling. Here are a few:

·         Get exercise. Fall prevention exercises can include balance exercises, resistance exercises, and simply walking. These can strengthen the muscles and help you stay steady.

·         Take classes. Water aerobics or tai chi classes can help you keep your balance.

·         Make your home safer. Aging in place home modifications can be simple and inexpensive, such as brighter lighting at the top and bottom of stairs, railings and grab bars at appropriate places, and picking up any loose throw rugs that could be a tripping hazard.

·         Get your eyes checked out. When your sense of hearing begins to diminish, your other senses need to compensate. Make sure you can see as clearly as possible.

·         Get hearing aids. A study from the University of Michigan found that those who chose hearing aids saw their risk of a fall-related injury drop by 13% in the three years after obtaining the device[8].

·         Review your medications. Some medications put you at greater risk for falls[9]. Speak to your doctor about what side effects to expect from the medications you’re on.

·         Talk to your doctor about depression. What in the world does depression have to do with falls? Turns out that it’s related. According to Healthy Hearing, hearing loss is linked to the risk of depression, and depression can lead to more falls[10]. The falls can deepen the depression. It’s a cycle that can be stopped, so talk with your doctor about it.

·         Use a medical alert system with fall detection for security and protection. These medical button alerts use built-in fall sensors to detect if you have fallen—even if you can’t press the button. The fall alarm then alerts the Command Center to send help. Since you could be injured or disoriented after a fall, these senior life-saving alert systems can be incredibly helpful in keeping you safe. The peace of mind that help is just a button press away can make you more confident, which can of course lead to fewer falls! It’s a win-win situation.