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Hearing loss linked to 3-fold increased risk of falling

February 28, 2012
by Kevin Kolus
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Hearing loss has been linked with a variety of medical, social and cognitive ills. According to a new study by a Johns Hopkins researcher, serious physical health problems may also be added to that list—specifically, hearing loss can be a risk factor of falls.

The finding could help scientists develop new ways to prevent falls, which generate billions in healthcare costs in the United States each year, said Johns Hopkins researcher Frank Lin, MD, PhD. Lin’s study is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

To determine whether hearing loss and falling are connected, Lin and his team used data from the 2001 to 2004 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This research program has periodically gathered health data from thousands of Americans since 1971.

During those years, 2,017 participants ages 40 to 69 had their hearing tested and answered questions about whether they had fallen over the past year. Researchers also collected demographic information, including age, sex and race, and tested participants' vestibular function, a measure of how well they kept their balance.

The researchers found that people with a 25-decibel hearing loss, classified as mild, were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. Every additional 10-decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 1.4 fold.

This finding still held true when researchers accounted for other factors linked with falling, including age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease and vestibular function. Excluding participants with moderate to severe hearing loss from the analysis didn't change the results, researchers said.

Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist, said one possible explanation is that people who have mild hearing loss might not have good awareness of their overall environment, making tripping and falling more likely.

Another reason hearing loss might increase the risk of falls, Lin said, is “cognitive load,” in which the brain is overwhelmed with demands on its limited resources.

"Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding," Lin said. "If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait."

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