Hearing Aids May Aid Balance

Hearing aids improved balance and may prevent falls in older adults with hearing loss

(RxWiki News) Hearing aids may aid more than just hearing. They may also improve balance and prevent falls in older patients with hearing loss.

Older adults with hearing loss had better balance while wearing hearing aids than when not using the devices, a recent study found.

“We don’t think it’s just that wearing hearing aids makes the person more alert,” said senior study author Timothy E. Hullar, MD, professor of otolaryngology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in a press release. “The participants appeared to be using the sound information coming through their hearing aids as auditory reference points or landmarks to help maintain balance. It’s a bit like using your eyes to tell where you are in space. If we turn out the lights, people sway a little bit — more than they would if they could see. This study suggests that opening your ears also gives you information about balance.”

According to the authors of this new study, some past research has hinted that hearing loss might increase falling risk in older adults.

To explore whether treating hearing loss might improve balance, Dr. Hullar and team looked at a group of 14 adults older than 65. These patients were 77 years old on average and had all worn hearing aids in both ears for at least three months. Hearing aids are small devices worn in or on the ear to amplify sound.

These researchers tested the patients' balance through two tests. In one test, the patients stood on a foam pad with their eyes closed. In the other, they stood with one foot in front of the other. The patients were timed to see how long they could maintain balance without opening their eyes or moving their arms or feet, for up to 30 seconds.

The patients completed the tests both with and without their hearing aids. On both tests, the patients performed better while wearing their hearing aids.

In the foam test, four patients were able to stay balanced for a full 30 seconds both with and without their hearing aids. The other 10 patients had an average balance time of 17.1 seconds without their hearing aids and 25.7 seconds with them.

In the second test, the heel-to-toe test, the patients were able to stay balanced for an average of 4.6 seconds without their hearing aids and 9.9 seconds with them.

Dr. Hullar and team also asked the patients whether they noticed any difference in balance when they were using hearing aids, but none reported any difference in their perceived balance abilities.

"This finding may be particularly important because it suggests that identifying patients whose balance might improve with hearing aids should not rely on the patient’s own estimate of the effectiveness of amplification on balance," Dr. Hullar and team wrote.

This study involved a very small number of participants, and further research is needed, these researchers noted. However, Dr. Hullar and colleagues said their findings suggested that hearing aids in older adults with hearing loss might prevent falls.

This study was published Oct. 24 in The Laryngoscope.

Grants from the Washington University Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences funded the research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
December 14, 2014