While we all may occasionally feel a bit wobbly on our feet, for some it happens more often. Of the older generations approximately 65 years and up, the risks are even higher. One out of every four seniors take a fall at least once each year and of these, one in five have serious outcomes such as head injury or broken bones.
According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), every 11 seconds someone in the 65+ age range is treated in an emergency room due to a fall, and tragically, every 19 minutes one will die as a result of a fall. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report that the death rate for falls taken by older adults has increased by 31 percent between 2007 and 2016 and that number is still rising.
While unsafe surfaces likely account for some of these spills, difficulties with balance and walking are definite factors as well. Issues that involve symptoms of dizziness or vertigo rank as high as 80 percent in this older age group.
A condition called vestibular or inner ear dysfunction is among the leading causes of these symptoms. This includes the parts of the inner ear as well as the areas of the brain that help to control both balance and eye movements. Of U.S. citizens age 40 and up, approximately 35 percent have had problems with vestibular dysfunctions.
The vestibular area acts as a mechanism to control balance, motion, and spatial orientation. Balance disorders can manifest themselves in different ways such as a floating, unsteady feeling, blurry vision, confusion or disorientation, and faintness. These can all contribute to feelings of fear and panic for someone who has no idea their hearing loss can be related to these symptoms.
Damage to the vestibular system whether from age, disease, or injury is often related to the symptoms of vertigo and dizziness. The audiometric area of the ear can also be attributed to potential fall risk. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, as well as the University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health studies, show that those with a minimum of 25 dB hearing loss are three times as likely to report a fall. These chances rise with each 10 dB increase in hearing loss by a shocking 140 percent.
Over time, technology has evolved from what twenty years ago was a standard series of tests using video nystagmography (VNG) as well as caloric testing. Research now shows that approximately 68 percent of people with vestibular dysfunction was not diagnosed when tested with only VNG.
These days patients shouldn’t expect to receive answers like “everything appears normal” or “this is your new normal”. Testing is now much more accurate and specialists in this field stay up to date on the latest in technology as well as research findings in an effort to better diagnose and help their patients.
Conditions of cognitive decline that include a lack of coordination or trouble with regular activities increase the chances of falls and other injuries associated with imbalance according to research. Research shows that hearing loss can lead to this type of cognitive decline. Hearing loss that’s left undiagnosed can have painful consequences.
“Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” says Dr. Frank Lin, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”
With the latest technologies, doctors are now able to monitor a patient’s condition virtually which can really improve the benefits to those with hearing loss. By virtually connecting with patients between visits via virtual reality (VR) programs, they can provide those with balance disorders, dizziness, or vertigo with a safer and less stressful treatment.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), “Hearing and balance disorders cross all ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Approximately 37.5 million American adults report some degree of hearing loss and 33.4 million adults report a problem during the past 12 months with dizziness or balance, such as vertigo, unsteadiness, or blurred vision after moving the head.”
If you are living with hearing loss, there are several steps you can take to help minimize the risk of falling. The first and most important is to visit a trusted hearing health professional. They will perform an examination and possibly tests to determine the best way to help minimize the hearing loss. They can help you make the best choice for hearing devices and refer you to other specialists for services such as therapy to help with balance and coordination.
Other simple to perform tips are:
- Get physical. Daily physical activity can help keep the body limber and prevent falls. Try some gentle movements such as activities that help improve balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength
- Remove hazards around the home such as papers, boxes, electrical cords, or other cluttered areas
- Fix loose boards or carpeting and rugs so they are not hazardous
- Put things in their places like books, dishes, and small items, but keep them within easy reach so you’re not straining to get to them
- Keep the home clean of spills such as food, grease, or liquids
- Utilize nonslip mats in your tub or shower as well as the bathroom floors
- Remove furniture (coffee or end tables, magazine or plant racks) from high traffic areas
- Keep areas well light and place lamps in easy to reach areas so you’re not fumbling in the dark
- Take advantage of assistive devices like grab bars for showers or tubs, handrails for stairways, nonslip treading on wood steps, and a solid seat and handheld shower wand for use while bathing
By visiting your hearing health professional and following these simple steps you have the tools to minimize the risk of falls for you or a loved one.