Study investigates if treating hearing loss may reduce risk of falling among seniors

DALLAS-FORT WORTH–More than half of adults in the U.S. over the age of 65 experience hearing loss; a third of older adults fall each year, often resulting in serious, even life-threatening injuries.

Is there any direct connection between the high incidence of falls in this population and the high rate of hearing loss? And will providing seniors with hearing aids to improve their hearing also improve their balance and thereby reduce their likelihood of falling?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) and from the University of North Texas (UNT) Health Science Center (HSC) in Fort Worth have recently undertaken a study to answer those questions.

It is logical that hearing loss and falls might be connected since the ear plays a role in both hearing and balance. While the ear is best known as the organ of hearing, people’s sense of balance also depends largely on the ear, specifically the vestibular system in the inner ear.

Previous research on falls has generally focused on the roles played by visual, cognitive, or motor impairments. However, there is growing evidence that hearing loss may increase a person’s risk of falling.

 

A REAL-LIFE APPROACH

As reported last week by the UT-Dallas News Center, researchers taking part in this collaborative effort have begun recruiting patients for their study, which is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Texas Medical Research. The scientists will look for a possible connection between hearing deficits and the likelihood of falls. The scientists will also evaluate how much hearing aids and other technologies might improve balance and prevent falls among people with auditory problems.

The UT Dallas-UNT study will help identify people at risk of falling and evaluate the effects of different types of hearing aid technologies on balance and gait. The scientists will monitor subjects, with and without hearing loss, while wearing or not wearing the hearing aids, as they stand, walk, and perform routine daily tasks while repeating words or sentences that are played in the surrounding environment.

Linda Thibodeau
Linda Thibodeau

Linda Thibodeau, PhD, a professor in the UT Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is the chief investigator on the UT Dallas research team. She noted that most previous studies of hearing and balance failed to replicate real-life situations, so their results were questionable.

In contrast, researchers in this study will evaluate participants in normal daily environments. Patients will stand or walk on a treadmill in different virtual environments, such as a simulated forest, to test balance issues.

The study will provide volunteer subjects with overall assessments of their hearing and balance systems. The auditory and vestibular testing will take place at the UT Dallas Callier Center for Communication Disorders. Subjects with a confirmed a hearing loss will be provided with bilateral hearing aids and FM systems for a 6-week period.

 

MEASURING BENEFITS OF AMPLIFICATION

The second phase of the study, conducted at the UNT center, will look at balance and mobility. Reflective sensors will be placed on the arms, legs and the body to measure patients’ various aspects of gait and balance.

Researchers will compare the base-line test results gathered before amplification with the results noted after six weeks of amplification to determine if balance improves when the participant is able to hear better in the noisy environment.

Thibodeau told the UT-Dallas News Center, “This study could go a long way toward helping us understand the importance of hearing and how it affects many other aspects of a person’s well-being.”

She added, “We anticipate that there will be increased cognitive resources available to devote to balance and gait when the hearing aids or assistive devices are worn. But until we observe these individuals in situations that are created to simulate normal day-to-day environments, we can’t be certain of the effects.”

Other UT Dallas faculty involved in the project include Ross Roeser, PhD, the Lois & Howard Wolf Professor in Pediatric Hearing, and Phillip Wilson, AuD, clinical associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.