People often underestimate the far-reaching health effects of untreated hearing loss. When hearing issues go unaddressed, they can contribute to increased risk of depression and isolation, as well as heart disease, dementia, and falling injuries. The link between hearing loss and balance issues isn’t intuitive, but a small new study is pointing to a better understanding of how the two are connected. The results of the study also show a promising link between using hearing aids and improved balance, highlighting a new benefit of treating hearing loss.
Hearing Loss and Balance
Part of what that new research indicates is a direct connection between how we hear and how we balance ourselves. The study, conducted at Washington University School of Medicine, looked at 14 participants and found that it is likely we use sound cues from the environment to understand how to balance ourselves. Study participants were asked to stand and balance themselves on a piece of foam, both with and without the assistance of hearing aids.
Normal balance for a person with healthy hearing was determined to be 30 seconds or more. While some of the participants could maintain normal balance levels, many found it challenging, especially without hearing aids. Without hearing aids, those in the study averaged 17 seconds of standing balance while use of hearing aids upped the average to 26 seconds, near normal levels. The researchers believe this shows sound has a significant role in our spatial sense and our ability to hear and determine the direction of incoming sounds helps us calibrate our own body.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Strain
Another way that hearing loss limits our ability to balance involves a connection between impaired hearing and cognitive strain. When we deal with hearing loss, one of the key changes it causes in the body is an increase in the amount of mental labor we perform.
Incoming sounds picked up by the ear are sent to the brain to be comprehended. Most hearing loss involves an impairment of our ability to detect sound waves. When our ears can’t pick up the totality of a sound, it sends an incomplete signal to the brain to be interpreted into meaning. Our brain is left to “fill in the blanks” as it were, using context clues and partial sounds to decipher the meaning from sound.
When our brain does this a few things happen. First, our mental processes shift away from established auditory patterns. The mind literally has to create a new way to listen. Second, the extra labor required to hear means more time, energy and focus is spent on the process of hearing. This redistributes the way we spend our cognitive resources, taking attention away from other important mental tasks.
While we reallocate our attention to comprehend sound, our attention to balance and coordination is often strained. This is a large part of why people with untreated hearing loss suffer falling injuries at a much higher rate than the general population. Untreated hearing loss is often responsible from distracting us from other basic aspects of cognitive functioning, making coping with unaddressed hearing loss exhausting and frustrating.
Why Hearing Aids Matter
Both the recent Washington University study and previous research into the cognitive impact of untreated hearing loss point to a factor that can greatly improve balance performance: the use of hearing aids. Hearing aids help restore a fuller spectrum of sound, making it easier to pick up on the cues we use to maintain our body’s equilibrium. Hearing aids also make comprehension easier which relaxes the stress hearing loss puts on our cognitive performance.
When researchers at Washington University asked subjects to balance themselves in a more challenging position than simple standing the effect of hearing aids came into clear focus. Standing heel-to-toe subjects averaged 5 seconds of steady balance without the use of their hearing aids. With the use of hearing aids, that average time doubled to 10 seconds showing what an effect sound comprehension can have on our physical coordination.
If you are facing hearing concerns, the best time to address them is right now – and Hearing Group can help. We operate nine locations in Kansas and Oklahoma to make exceptional hearing healthcare easy to access. With patient-focused service, we personalize your hearing solutions to your needs and help you connect with life-changing hearing care. If you’re ready to reap the benefits of treating hearing loss, contact us today!