Hearing Aids and Balance in Older Adults

From Medical News Today

A small study suggests that older people with hearing loss may find that their balance improves when they use hearing aids. The finding supports the idea that improving hearing in older people with hearing loss may help reduce their risk of falls.

In The Laryngoscope journal, senior author Timothy E. Hullar says they do not think the improvement in balance was just due to hearing aids helping the patients be more alert.  “The participants appeared to be using the sound information coming through their hearing aids as auditory reference points or landmarks to help maintain balance, ” he explains.

The study is the first to show that sound itself as opposed to just the balance system of the inner ear, helps us to maintain postural stability. As the participants underwent their balance tests with and without their hearing aids switched on, the researchers played white noise in the background to generate sound much like radio static.

One of the tests involved the participants having their eyes covered, standing with their feet together on a thick foam pad. In another more challenging test, the participants had to stand on the floor with one foot in front of the other heel-to-toe, again with their eyes covered. The researchers measured how long the participants could stand in these positions without needing to move their arms or feet, or help with their balance.

Some of the participants could stand steady on the pad for 30 seconds or more which is considered normal whether their hearing aids were turned on or not. But the participants who had difficulty maintaining stability this long performed better when they had their hearing aids turned on. The improvement in balance was also greater in the more challenging test.

This study involved a very small number of participants, and further research is needed, but the preliminary findings suggest that hearing aids are a novel treatment modality for imbalance in older adults with hearing loss.  Further studies may strengthen the conclusion that wearing hearing aids may offer a significant public-health benefit for avoiding falls in this population.