There are an estimated 23 million older adults with untreated hearing problems which have been linked to a host of negative health outcomes.
Last week, we learned about the mental risks that can come along with hearing loss.
In the second of this two-part series on the potential side effects of hearing loss, we’ll be focused on the physical effects of hearing loss including increased fall risk, reduced physical activity, and other physical consequences.
Increased Fall Risk from Hearing Loss
According to HealthyHearing, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries in older adults.
The more severe the hearing loss, the higher the risk—and these risks can compound quickly.
According to one study, people with mild hearing loss (approximately 25dB) are three times more likely to have a history of falling, with each additional 10dB of hearing loss increases the chances 1.4x.
The reason behind this lies in the direct link between hearing and balance.
Our inner ear is home to the vestibular system which is responsible for “maintaining balance, posture, and the body’s orientation in space and plays an important role in regulating locomotion and other movements” (American Psychology Association).
Thus, hearing loss of any kind that damages the vestibular system also has a drastic effect on increasing fall risk. Reducing the risk of falls comes down to two things: treating the effects of hearing loss and strengthening your physical body.
A University of Michigan study found that the use of a hearing aid cut the risk of a fall-related injury by 13%over the next three years.
Likewise, remaining physically active can reduce the risk of a fall as well as the damage done by any potential falls by staying fit.
Reduced Physical Activity
On the topic of physical activity, three studies supported by the National Institute on Aging showed that there is a relationship between reduced physical activity in older adults and hearing loss.
The findings, originally reported in JAMA Network Open stated that “hearing loss was independently associated with poorer physical activity, including less moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, less light-intensity physical activity, more sedentary behaviors, and a more fragmented physical activity pattern.”
This point is important enough that it bears repeating: a healthy brain is an active brain and physical activity is an important part of that.
Dangers Navigating the Environment
As we’ve already mentioned, the mechanics of your ears play a large part in how well you balance. As you walk through the environment, your ears subconsciously are using environmental cues to help you balance.
Hearing loss makes these cues less subconscious and thus your brain uses more brain power trying to hear them which can put added stress on your brain making it less able to pay attention to other cues in the environment.
“[Hearing loss] makes your brain work harder just to process sound,” Says Doctor Frank Lin, director of Johns Hopkins' Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, “this subconscious multitasking may interfere with some of the mental processing needed to walk safely.”
Other Physical Consequences
Hearing loss can also be a sign or related to other physical ailments and should be discussed with your physician if you think you may be starting to lose your hearing.
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
One study suggests that high blood pressure plays a role in accelerating natural hearing loss due to age.
This is due to the damage done to the blood vessels throughout the body, including those that lie in the inner ears leading to sensorineural hearing loss.
Although medication may be prescribed to regulate blood pressure, behavioral changes can also prevent hypertension such as:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a diet rich in whole foods, fruits, and vegetables
- Limiting processed foods and alcohol
In a similar way to hypertension, migraines may also be linked to eventual hearing loss. A study in JAMA Neurology, migraines can damage the cilia in the inner ear, leading to sensorineural hearing loss which is not reversible.
Treating migraines then, is an important step to protecting your hearing as there is additional research that shows that migraines and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is linked as well.
According to a study done over five years in Taiwan, those with sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) were 1.6-times more likely to have a stroke within the next few years than those that did not.
(SSNHL) is different from normal hearing loss and “occurs abruptly, developing rapidly within 72 hours”.
Should you notice a drastic change in your hearing in a short period of time, you should seek professional medical assistance immediately.
Hearing loss by itself is a devastating chronic issue but is also linked to a host of side effects, both physical and mental.
This makes it all the more important to be in regular conversation with an audiologist or your physician should you notice a decrease in your ability to hear.
If you suspect you may have hearing loss, take our free online hearing test today.