A study is being set up to research whether hearing aids and other devices can help prevent falls. UT Dallas researchers are recruiting patients for a new study to look at a possible connection between hearing deficits and the likelihood of falls. They are looking for 10 adults, ages 50 to 80 years, who have normal hearing and 10 adults who have hearing loss but have never worn a hearing aid. The research project, a collaboration between The University of Texas at Dallas and UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, is evaluating whether hearing aids and other technologies might improve balance and prevent falls for people with auditory problems, and how much, if any.
One-third of older adults fall each year, resulting in life-threatening injuries. A person’s sense of balance relies heavily on the vestibular system of the inner ear and the senses of sight, touch, and hearing. Research on falls have focused on visual, cognitive, or motor impairments and their impact on balance. But recent studies suggest that people with hearing loss also may have a higher risk of falling.
This study will help identify people at risk of falling and examine the effects of different hearing aid technologies on balance and walking. The researchers want to evaluate the participants in “normal” daily environments. “Previous studies of hearing and balance rarely replicated real-life situations, so results were questionable,” said Dr. Linda Thibodeau, a professor in UT Dallas’ School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the chief investigator for the UT Dallas team.
The study also will provide volunteer subjects with overall assessments of their hearing and balance systems. The auditory and vestibular testing and hearing aid fitting will take place at the UT Dallas Callier Center for Communication Disorders. If a hearing loss is confirmed, the audiologist will perform a hearing aid evaluation and selection. People with hearing loss will be equipped with bilateral hearing aids and FM systems for a six-week period. The study requires four to five visits, taking a total of 10 to 12 hours, scheduled over a period of six to eight weeks.
The second phase of the study, looking at balance and mobility, will take place at the UNT center in Fort Worth. Dr. Nicoleta Bugnariu, associate professor at UNT, is lead investigator for the project. Researchers will compare the base-line test results gathered before amplification with the results noted after six weeks of amplification to determine whether balance improves when the participant is able to hear better in the noisy environment. “We anticipate that there will be increased cognitive resources available to devote to balance and gait when the hearing aids or assistive devices are worn,” Thibodeau said. “But until we observe these individuals in situations that are created to simulate normal day-to-day environments, we can’t be certain of the effects. This study could go a long way toward helping us understand the importance of hearing and how it affects many other aspects of a person’s well-being.”