Hearing loss, falls linked

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A new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging suggests that hearing loss significantly increases your risk of falling.

Among adults 65 or older, falls are a serious public health problem and are the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20,000 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries and 2.2 million nonfatal injuries were treated in emergency rooms in 2009.

Direct medical costs of falls are estimated at approximately $30 billion per year.

To make the connection between hearing loss and fall risk, researchers analyzed data from more than 2,000 people between 40 and 69 from 2001 to 2004, as part of the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. As part of the survey, the participants had their hearing tested and also underwent vestibular testing (an examination of the balance mechanism of the inner ear), in addition to answering demographic and other health- related questions.

Despite accounting for multiple factors related to fall risk (age, sex, medical condition, etc.), researchers determined even a "mild" degree of hearing loss nearly triples the risk of falling. For every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss, the risk of falling was increased by an additional 140 percent.

So, what accounts for this increased risk of falling for people with hearing loss?

One of the most obvious reasons that people with hearing loss may have an increased fall risk is because they have less environmental awareness to things going on around them. A distant warning signal may not be heard or could be even be misinterpreted as something else altogether.

Dr. Frank Lin, one of the lead researchers in the study, suggests that another possible reason hearing loss might increase the risk of falls is due to "cognitive load." Because the individuals with hearing loss are using more of their brain energy to help compensate for the sounds they miss, they may not be able to give enough cognitive resources to help maintain proper balance and gait and thus are more likely to experience a fall.

Researchers are hopeful that the findings of the study could help in the development of new ways to prevent falls, especially in the elderly.

As more Baby Boomers join the ranks of Medicare in the coming years, fall prevention will be key in helping save lives, as well as help save billions of tax dollars in medical costs for preventable injuries.

Even the first fall can have significant consequences and in some unfortunate cases can turn a spouse or child into a caregiver. If you have concerns that you or your loved one may be at risk of falling, speak with your doctor and consider the simple tips from the CDC.

Want to learn more about hearing and balance? Visit www.columbiabasinhearing.com and click on the "Hearing Resources" tab.

Dr. Kevin Liebe practices at Columbia Basin Hearing & Balance Center, which has an office in Walla Walla.

Cut your risk

Exercise regularly. It is important that the exercises focus on increasing leg strength and improving balance, and that they get more challenging over time. Tai chi programs are especially good.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your medicines. Prescription and over-the counter medicines may cause side effects or interactions such as dizziness or drowsiness.

Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year and update your eyeglasses to maximize your vision. Consider getting a pair with single-vision distance lenses for some activities such as walking outside.

Make the home safer by reducing tripping hazards, adding grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, adding stair railings and improving the lighting in your home.

To lower their hip fracture risk, older adults can:

Get adequate calcium and vitamin D from food and/or from supplements.

Do weight bearing exercise.

Get screened and treated for osteoporosis.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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