Hearing loss can affect us in many ways, from difficulty participating in conversations to trouble picking up on important sounds. But did you know hearing loss can also affect our balance?
“People who suffer from even mild hearing loss are nearly three times more likely to fall than those with good hearing, and that number continues to increase as hearing loss progresses,” says Catherine M. Marino, AuD, doctor of audiology and director of the Riddle Hospital Audiology and Hearing Aid Center, part of Main Line Health. “We’ve always thought that hearing affects balance, but until fairly recently, any theories we had were anecdotal. A major study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2012 proved these theories correct.”
Sharing one mechanism
The inner ear is the sensory organ for both hearing and balance. So, if a person is losing his or her hearing, Dr. Marino explains that balance is probably becoming impaired, too.
“We use our ears as an extra sense almost like bats do,” says Dr. Marino. “Hearing helps us to be aware of where we are in our environment. When there is a decrease in sensory input, we are not quite as in touch with our environment, and this affects our ability to maintain our balance.”
As hearing loss become better understood, multiple connections are now being made between hearing and overall health.
The effects of hearing loss on brain function
“It used to be that when a friend or family member began to lose their hearing, we would all just talk louder and assume that would get everyone by,” says Dr. Marino. “Now we realize that untreated hearing loss is a much more serious matter.”
Experts now know that hearing loss—or auditory deprivation—has a negative effect on brain function. It prevents normal and adequate signals to be sent to the brain, resulting in confused messages. And when the neurofibers that send messages to the brain are not receiving proper stimulation, the auditory cortex, where the brain receives sound, also loses the ability to process. This causes a continual decline is a person’s ability to understand speech. The longer someone waits to treat hearing loss, the longer it takes to regain those abilities. If you wait too long, you may never regain full function.
Also newly identified is a correlation between hearing loss and dementia. While it cannot be said that hearing loss causes dementia, people with hearing loss do have a greater chance of developing dementia, again due to inadequate stimulation to the brain.
When to get a hearing test
“Hearing loss begins long before you notice it,” says Dr. Marino. “You should have your hearing checked in your 20s, again in your 30s, and in every decade of life. If issues are detected, your physician may recommend more frequent testing.”
Dr. Marino cautions that the free hearing tests we often see in malls and box stores are not true diagnostic tests, but basic screenings. Comprehensive diagnostic tests are only performed by licensed audiologists.
“If you’re having trouble hearing the conversation when the speaker turns away from you, or if you can’t hear sounds close by because outside sounds are interfering,” says Dr. Marino, “it’s time to get your hearing checked.”
Factors that may contribute to hearing loss include hereditary influences, excessive noise, certain medications, and some medical conditions including diabetes and heart disease.
Treating hearing loss
Today’s hearing aids are not only lighter and more attractive, but research shows they are able to restore the hearing function we have lost without over-amplification. Earlier versions just made everything louder. Today, hearing aids can amplify soft sounds to a greater degree than loud sounds. They actually mimic our natural hearing.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t like to talk about hearing loss because they associate it with getting old,” says Dr. Marino. “But hearing loss, unlike some other issues associated with aging, can be easily remedied. Hearing is so important for balance, for good mental health, and for our ability to live vibrantly and independently in our older years. Don’t wait to get yours checked!”
Talk you your primary care physician about any concerns you have about your hearing, and ask to be referred to an audiologist for diagnostic testing.