Healthy Hearing Can Balance Your Life

Reviewed by Dr. Porter on February 13, 2023

For many seniors, there is no greater challenge than recovering from—or sometimes just surviving—a serious fall. One of the best ways to prevent falls, you may be surprised to find out, is to get any needed hearing correction.


Just how big a problem is falling?


About 65,000 people die annually from falls in the United States and Canada. In people over 75, falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury.


Every year, about 310,000 people over 65 in Canada and the U.S. fall and break a hip. Hip fractures set off a chain of events that results in death in about 58 percent of hip fracture patients in just one year.


But correcting hearing problems can dramatically reduce your risk of taking a fall.


What’s the Relationship Between Hearing and Falls?

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association estimates that any degree of uncorrected hearing loss increases your risk of falling by about 300 percent. Your risk of falling increases by 140 percent for every 10 decibels, so you could have more than a 10-fold increase in falling risk if your hearing loss is more than 30 decibels.


The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association believes that there are three reasons that hearing loss increases the risk of taking a fall.

  • Hearing loss reduces your spatial awareness. You will not be as aware of how close or distant objects are around you.
  • Hearing loss reduces your awareness of what’s going on in your immediate environment. You might not hear the high-pitched sounds children make in play. You might not hear your dog barking a warning that you are about to be hit by something or trip over something. You might not hear someone shouting a warning.
  • Hearing loss is a strain on your brain. When you can’t hear well, your brain directs more resources to interpret the limited amount of sound you can hear. You may miss tactile sensations (like a slippery surface under your feet) or visual cues that you are approaching a hazard, especially if you also deal with visual impairment.


Hearing Aids Can Often Improve Balance

At Harbor Audiology, we have noticed that fewer patients seem to suffer falls after they get hearing aids. But you don’t have to take our word for it.


Several years ago, Dr. Timothy Hullar, a professor of otolaryngology at Washington University in St. Louis, tested balance in 14 patients aged 65 to 91 who wear hearing aids.


Published in a medical journal called The Laryngoscope, Dr. Hullar’s study was the first to test the importance of hearing correction to maintaining balance, as contrasted to studying damage to the vestibular system.


Dr. Hullar asked the 14 patients in the study to stand on a foam pad to see if they could keep their balance for 30 seconds. This is a standard test of balance in older adults. The research team ran a white noise generator to block out any ambient sounds that could distract the participants from keeping their balance on the pad. The white noise generator created sound something like radio static.


In one test, Hullar and associates asked the volunteers to stand on the pad with their feet together while their eyes were blindfolded. In another test, volunteers stood flat on the floor (with no pad), with one foot in front of the other, heel to toe. The researchers measured how long the volunteers could maintain their balance without additional help. They did the rest four times, twice with hearing aids on and twice with hearing aids off.


A few participants in the clinical trial could keep their balance on the foam pad and the floor for 30 seconds, whether their hearing aids were turned on or off. But most participants could maintain their balance longer when their hearing aids were turned on.


The differences between hearing aids on and hearing aids off were greater during the second, more challenging part of the test. The test suggests that hearing correction makes a big difference in any kind of motion that involves putting one foot in front of another, such as walking.


“We ran the tests to determine if we could detect an improvement even in the volunteers who did very well on the first foam pad test,” Hullar said. “What we found was that, as we expected, their balance improved during the harder test when they had their hearing aids on.”


Test participants could maintain their balance on the foam pad for an average of 17 seconds without their hearing aids and 26 seconds when their hearing aids were turned on. They could stand with their feet flat on the floor for an average of 5 seconds with their hearing aids and 10 seconds with them.


How much hearing correction improves your balance may not be something you notice. Dr. Hullar commented that many of his patients in the study said they couldn’t tell the difference. But the ability to maintain balance was significantly better with hearing correction, indicating that hearing aids can prevent falls.


Let Harbor Audiology Help You Maintain Balance in Your Life

An in-person appointment with a professional audiologist is the best way to get the exact hearing correction you need. Online hearing tests are great for detecting whether you have some degree of hearing loss, but they can’t detect the cause of your hearing loss and whether hearing aids are really what you need. Online hearing tests don’t give you the precise information you need for programming hearing aids for the best possible hearing correction.


Harbor Audiology is here to help. We work with insurance and VA benefits. We offer extended hours for your convenience. We have offices serving all of northwestern Washington. Call or text us at (253) 999-9649 today for more information or to make your appointment! We serve SequimSilverdalePort AngelesTacomaGig Harbor, and Federal Way.

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