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Hearing Loss and Balance

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You already know that hearing loss means you have, well, trouble hearing. But did you know that hearing loss is also associated with other health problems? One important link is between hearing loss and balance disorders. Recent research out of Johns Hopkins showed that individuals between the ages of 40 and 69 who had mild hearing loss were three times as likely to report falling in the past year, compared to individuals with normal hearing. This article will discuss the link between hearing loss and balance problems, and the surprising thing you might be able to do to help!

Your Balance System

There are three main parts to the balance system, or “balance triad.” All three parts provide sensory information to the brain, which integrates the incoming information and allows you to remain upright. These parts are: 

  • The visual system
  • The vestibular system
  • The proprioceptive system

The visual system is listed first because it contributes the most to your sense of balance. The visual image of your surroundings provides the most important information with which your brain orients itself in space. Try standing on one foot – then try closing your eyes, and see how easy it is to remain standing on that one foot when you’ve taken away your visual information!

The vestibular system is contained within your inner ear, and is made up of two parts: the vestibule, which senses up/down and front/back movement, and the semicircular canals, which sense turning motions on multiple planes. The vestibular system is directly connected to the cochlea, which is the hearing portion of the inner ear, and all the parts of the inner ear share a pathway to the brain. You may already know that the cochlea senses sound by the motion of fluid stimulating hair cells; the vestibular system senses the motion of your head in exactly the same way. This is how, if you’re in the passenger seat of a moving car, you can close your eyes and still know if the car is stopping or accelerating, turning right or left. The tiny motions of your head, even when you’re standing still, provide input that allows you to unconsciously correct any balance errors.

The proprioceptive system consists of sensory nerves in your entire body, but most importantly your legs and feet. They provide awareness of body position, muscle tension, and pressure.

Input from these three systems is integrated in the cerebellum.

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Untreated Hearing Loss and Balance

In the early 2000s, researchers at Johns Hopkins did a large-scale health study, and examined data from participants aged 40-69 to determine the relationship between hearing loss and fall risk. They found that even with mild hearing loss, hearing-impaired people were three times as likely to report falling in the past year compared with normal-hearing people. Furthermore, they found that the odds of falling increased linearly with the degree of hearing loss. 

The researchers suggested a few possible reasons for this association:

  •  The inner ear contains the sense organs of both hearing and balance. Both senses may be affected by the damage to the inner ear that causes most hearing loss.
  • Auditory information may be part of the data that the brain uses to maintain balance. When a person has hearing loss, the brain may be missing the auditory cues that it needs for environmental awareness.
  • Hearing loss means that a person must focus more on what they’re hearing in order to process and understand. This drains cognitive resources and reduces available attention for other things. If hearing loss is decreasing the available cognitive and attentional capacity that a person needs to maintain balance, the ability to avoid falls may be impaired.

(Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3518403/)

Can Hearing Aids Improve Balance?

If hearing loss can potentially cause or exacerbate balance problems, it stands to reason that treating the hearing loss with appropriately fitted hearing aids could help with the balance problems as well. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis set out to test just that: in a study published in 2015, they tested hearing aid users aged 65-91 to see how they performed on two different balance measures, with their hearing aids and without. On both tests, the participants performed better with the hearing aids than without, indicating that hearing aids can potentially help with balance and reduce fall risk!

(Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25346316/)

Conclusions

There are, of course, many reasons for balance problems. Some balance disorders are related to your ears, but many are not. If you’re having chronic balance problems, it’s important to have a full evaluation with a medical professional to determine the cause of your trouble. However, it’s also important to treat your hearing loss, and if you have balance issues (or want to avoid developing them), hearing aids could help you with both problems. 

If you have questions about hearing aids or your hearing, please give us a call at (833) 4-EARLUX!

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