Hearing Issues Can Increase Risk of Falling

What people hear and do not hear can have a direct effect on their balance, according to research from the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE). The research, published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, provides a better understanding of the relationship between hearing loss and why people fall, especially in the elderly population. These findings could lead doctors to screen for hearing loss in patients at high risk for falls. Lower-limb amputees are among those generally at higher risk for falls.

“We use sound information to keep ourselves balanced, especially in cases where other senses—such as vision or proprioception—are compromised,” said senior author Maura Cosetti, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and director of the Ear Institute at NYEE. Proprioception refers to people’s perception of where their body parts, including their limbs, are in space, and it’s often a problem for amputees who wear prostheses and cannot feel the ground beneath them. “Balance is complicated and involves the coordination of many different sensory inputs. When people fall, doctors typically focus on vision issues, check for neuropathy in their feet and bone issues, and fully ignore issues related to hearing. This review highlights the importance of hearing for our sense of balance. And because hearing loss is treatable, getting hearing checked is a crucial first step.”

The researchers found that people had more difficulty staying balanced or standing still on an uneven surface when it was quiet but had better balance while listening to sounds. They believe this may be because sound can act as an “auditory anchor.” More specifically, people use sounds like white noise to help unconsciously create a mental image of the environment to keep ourselves grounded. The research analysis also showed that sound became more important for balance when the subjects were given difficult balancing tasks (e.g., standing on a moving floor) or if the patients had pre-existing sensory issues. When people with vision loss, hearing loss, or balance problems heard stationary sounds, their posture dramatically improved. This suggests people rely more on hearing when other senses are impaired.

This article was adapted from information provided by Mount Sinai Health System.

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