Hearing loss can cause a number of problems, some of which affect both the person experiencing hearing loss and those with a close relationship with them. At the forefront of these problems is balance and safety.
When we walk through the world with normal hearing, it can be easy to take balance for granted. Except for gymnasts and dancers, most of us rarely think about balancing as we go about our daily lives, because for the most part, involuntary processes balance the world for us and keep us on our feet. Only when we – or someone we love – begin to lose their balance do we realize our delicate balance is and how vital it is to preventing falls and supporting overall safety. This article will cover how hearing loss relates to balance, fall risk, and safety, and the steps you can take to improve safety for yourself or anyone experiencing hearing loss.
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Recent research from the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE) has found that hearing has a direct effect on balance. The research has improved the understanding of the connection between hearing loss and falls, especially among elderly people. Furthermore, it can allow doctors to screen older patients for hearing loss and provide them with hearing aids to reduce their risk of falling.
While previous studies have shown that hearing loss can increase the risk of falls, the reasons behind this connection have been largely unknown. Now, experts believe that hearing plays a vital role in balance because hearing sounds gives us information about our environment. This is especially true when our other senses – like proprioception and sight – are unable to give us information about our environment. For example, our hearing is even more necessary when we are in a dark environment where we cannot see.
This study analyzed how people keep their balance while standing still. The participants used noise-canceling headphones creating a lack of sound to mimic hearing loss along with background noise like static, white noise, running water, and cocktail party chatter to environmental sounds. The study found that people had more success keeping their balance while standing still when there was environmental noise than when there was silence, even on uneven surfaces.
They also discovered that an important factor was the type of sound. Static background noise improved balance the most whereas a beeping sound heard through their headphones that changed from left to right actually made their balance worse.
One conclusion from this study is that sound acts as an auditory anchor and sounds like static or white noise help people visualize their environment and stay grounded – providing them with spatial awareness. Another important conclusion is that sound has a stabilizing effect on balance, and when it’s removed, balance suffers.
Hearing Loss and Falls
Because hearing loss can negatively impact an individual’s sense of balance, it puts them at a much greater risk of falls.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 36 million falls are reported every year in the United States. These falls result in about 32,000 annual deaths and 20% of these falls result in an injury of some kind, like a broken bone or head injury. Every year, 300,000 people are hospitalized from hip fractures, and 95% of hip fractures are caused by falls in older people.
Falls are more common and more dangerous in older populations. Because of the frequency and severity of falls among older adults in the U.S., falls are a public health concern.
Other Safety Concerns
The loss of balance puts anyone with hearing loss at a greater risk of injury, but it isn’t the only threat to the safety of anyone experiencing hearing loss.
When our hearing is compromised, it becomes more difficult to locate the origin of sounds, making it harder to identify where a potential danger is. A person could look the wrong way when they hear a car on the road or the sound of a runner around the corner in a park. Furthermore, not only can hearing loss skew the perception of sounds, but in some cases, some noises may go completely unnoticed. The dangers of untreated hearing loss are serious and can severely compromise safety as a result.
Below, we’ll cover some of the ways you can improve your balance and safety in the face of hearing loss.
While everyone knows that exercise is great for your physical health, fewer know that exercise is great for your mental health and very beneficial for people with mental illness. The benefits of exercise extend to practically every area of your life including preventing falls.
Practicing daily exercises that improve strength, particularly in the legs, and balance can help you reduce your risk of falling. Exercising will also help you feel better and walk through life more confidently.
You don’t need to exercise rigorously to get results – and starting an aggressive exercise regimen can even lead to injury –Low-impact exercise like Tai Chi, for example, is a great place to start.
Ask your healthcare provider about some exercises to improve your strength and balance.
Make Your Home Safer
If you spend most of your time at home, chances are that if you fall, you’re going to fall at home. Therefore, spend some time making your home safer. This includes decluttering your home and removing obstacles on the floor that you can trip over, including rugs.
Other tips to make your home safer include:
Keep items that you regularly use in lower cabinets, so you don’t have to use a stool to retrieve them.
Use non-slip mats in the shower or tub.
Install handrails by the toilet, shower, and stairs.
Improve the lighting inside.
Wear supportive shoes inside and outside.
You’ll be surprised how much taking some time to reorganize your home and upgrading it with some safety features will help to improve your safety. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to get rid of anything you don’t need and go through some old keepsakes.
Consider Using Hearing Aids
The best thing you can do for yourself or a loved one experiencing hearing loss is get their ears checked by an ear specialist. At Houston Ear, Nose, Throat & Allergy, we have highly-trained audiologists who can test your ears for hearing and recommend an effective treatment plan like a hearing aid.
Fortunately, most types of hearing loss are easy to treat and involve using a hearing aid. Hearing aids help people with hearing loss hear sounds on the same volume as someone who doesn’t experience hearing loss.
With the right hearing aid, you’ll be hearing like you used to, which will in turn drastically improve your balance and safety, lowering your risk of injury-inducing falls.
Contact us today at our hearing center to schedule a hearing test and say goodbye to the dangers of untreated hearing loss, including balance issues!
To learn more about the consequences of untreated hearing loss, read our article here.