Many audiologists who work with patients experiencing equilibrium problems are keenly aware of the relationship between aging and balance. This observation was recently confirmed in a study published online in Frontiers in Neurology. This study, conducted by researchers at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, found vestibular thresholds begin to double every 10 years above the age of 40. Results of their study, reported in Medical Science News, suggest a decline in an aging person’s ability to receive sensory information about motion, balance and spatial orientation.
As senior author Daniel M. Merfeld, Ph.D., Director of the Jenks Vestibular Physiology at Mass. Eye and Ear and a Professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School told the Medical Science News, “In our study, vestibular decline was clearly evident above the age of 40. Increased thresholds correlate strongly with poorer balance test results, and we know from previous studies that those who have poorer balance have much higher odds of falling.”
Scientific reports suggest that more than half of the population will see a physician at some point in their lives with symptoms related to the vestibular system (e.g., dizziness, vertigo, imbalance and blurred vision). Many of these patients, in turn, will end up seeing an audiologist or physical therapist for a balance assessment.
Vestibular Thresholds Increase After 40
In this Frontiers in Neurology study, the researchers administered balance and motion tests to 105 healthy people ranging from 18 to 80 years old and measured their vestibular thresholds (“threshold” was defined as the smallest possible motion administered that the subject is able to correctly perceive). While they found no difference between the thresholds of male and female subjects, they did find that vestibular thresholds increased above the age of 40.
The researchers also found that these increasing vestibular thresholds were linked to a failure to complete a standardized balance test. This correlation, as might be expected, indicates the risk of falling is substantially affected by vestibular function.
Further, Merfeld and his colleagues, using data from previous studies, suggest balance dysfunction in older adults could be responsible for as many as 152,000 American deaths each year. This estimate, somewhat surprisingly, would place vestibular dysfunction third in the United States behind heart disease and cancer as a leading cause of death among Americans.
The authors of this study went on to suggest the strong correlation between worsening vestibular thresholds and balance indicates there may be better ways to screen vestibular function and ways to develop therapies that may improve their thresholds. Audiologists could play a role in developing these improved screening tools and therapies.
*featured image courtesy Entrepreneur