Hearing Loss and Fall Risk

This article on the links between falls and hearing loss was originally published in Aging Answers magazine, March 2015.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that falls are the leading cause of injury-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations and deaths for Ohioans age 65 and older.  Falls among older adults cost Ohio residents $646 million in 2012. Moreover, the rate of falling has been increasing.  From 2000 to 2012, Ohioans aged 65+ experienced a 167% increase in the number of fatal falls and a 136% increase in the fall death rate.  On average, 2.7 older Ohioans suffered fatal falls each day in 2012.

But there’s a ray of hope in this disconcerting data.  Most falls can be prevented.  And preventing falls is the number one thing you can do to keep your loved ones aging safe at home.

Hearing Loss and Fall Risk

Two recent studies point to a critical link between hearing loss and an increased risk of falls.

In one study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that people with only a 25 dB hearing loss (considered mild), were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling, even when adjusting for other factors, such as age and vestibular function.  The same study showed that as hearing loss increased beyond the 25 dB loss, so did the chances of falling.

Another study from Washington University in St. Louis showed that patients with hearing aids in both ears performed better on balance tests when their hearing aids were ON compared with when they were OFF.

Hearing Check-ups – An Easy Way to Identify Fall Risk

Although the NIH reports that 47% of adults 75 and older have a hearing impairment, the good news is that it is easy to find out how much loss is present, and that the super-majority of people with hearing loss can effectively be treated with hearing-assistive devices, especially hearing aids.

A simple step to identify and reduce fall risk is to insist mom and dad get a hearing check-up.  This easy test is non-invasive, painless, and takes less than and an hour or two if you have a convenient location to get a hearing evaluation nearby.

Some Audiologists and hearing aid fitters do not charge anything for a hearing evaluation, and will share the audiogram and other test results to help you quantify the hearing loss, if any exists, so be sure to ask about costs and what you can expect to leave with when you schedule.

Hearing Aids – An Ounce of Prevention

This next step is critical but by no means easy, given the ambivalence many older adults feel about hearing aids.  If the hearing loss is treatable with hearing aids or another assistive device — make sure they wear them!   While hearing aid performance continues to rise, prices and sizes have fallen, meaning they’re more affordable and discreet than ever.  If their current aids are not working properly, demand the assistance you deserve to make sure the aids are functioning, have been fitted correctly, and proper training in use and care was provided.  Above all, help set realistic expectation since no assistive device is capable of returning hearing to a pristine state.

To Age in Place – Consider Home Modifications

“Fall prevention is absolutely critical to remaining safely in their homes.” says Brian Pritchard, a home modification specialist for HandyPro of Cleveland.

“That TV commercial we’ve all seen, of someone who has fallen and can’t get up, is giving people a solution that only helps them AFTER they’ve experienced an injury.  We want people to prevent falls from happening in the first place.”

Start with the basics, like installing grab bars inside and outside the bathing area, and near the toilet.  “Many people use hand towel holders for support or to pull themselves up, and are pulling them right out of the wall and down to the floor when they fall. You need something properly installed and designed to support enough weight to keep you safe”.

Final tips to reduce fall risk

  1. Get your hearing tested annually and wear your hearing aids on a regular basis.
  2. Declutter to make the home safer and install proper safety handrails and other assistive devices.
  3. Keep active.  Begin a regular exercise program and seek assistance from community fitness programs if you need help getting things kick-started.
  4. Use special precautions when venturing outside in the winter.  Ice can be treacherous and the body dehydrates faster in the colder weather.
  5. Have your health care provider review your medicines for any that may cause dizziness or fainting.

 

Author: Glenn Harbold