Hearing loss linked to heightened risk of falling, researchers say

BALTIMORE—People with even a mild hearing loss are nearly three times as likely to report having fallen in the preceding year than those in an otherwise comparable population who have normal hearing. And among people with more severe hearing loss the increased risk of falling appears to be even greater.

So reported Frank Lin, MD, PhD, an otologist and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, and his co-author Luigi Ferrucci, MD, PhD, of the National Institute on Aging, in their article in the February 27 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

The article is the latest in a series by Lin and colleagues based upon their analysis of data from the 2001 to 2004 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. NHANES has periodically gathered health data from thousands of Americans since 1971.

 

WHAT THE NUMBERS REVEALED

This latest article raises the specter of an especially serious consequence of hearing impairment: that it drives up the incidence of falls, a major cause of serious injuries and deaths among older people.

In the NHANES data that Lin and Ferrucci drew on, 2,017 survey participants ages 40 to 69 had had their hearing tested and answered questions about whether they had fallen over the past year.

The authors found that people with a 25-dB hearing loss, classified as mild, were nearly three times more likely to have a recent history of falling than those without hearing loss. Moreover, the researchers determined, every additional 10 dB of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by an additional 140%.

This was the case, Lin and Ferrucci found, even when researchers accounted for other factors linked with falling, including age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease, and vestibular function.

Lin speculated on possible explanations for the finding. One is that people who don’t hear well may have reduced awareness of their overall environment, making them more likely to trip and fall.

Or, he suggested, the additional strain of trying to hear with an impaired hearing system may increase the cognitive load on the brain. He explained, “Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding. If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”

 

PREVIOUS FINDINGS

In one previous article, Lin and colleagues reported that the NHANES data reveal that hearing loss is more common among adult Americans than has generally been reported. In another, they noted that and that the percentage of people seeking help for the condition is even smaller than was realized.