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The benefits of hearing aids are overwhelming. Study after study shows that hearing aids help us maintain our connections to friends and loved ones, while also allowing us to better navigate the world. They let us feel and act younger for longer into our lives, beginning at the onset of hearing loss. One aspect of life improvement that has been questioned and studied is balance; can hearing aids help us avoid falling down?
Hearing Aids Assist Our Sense of Balance
The answer is yes. We know that information about our physical orientation to gravity is provided to the brain by the inner ear. An organ called the “labyrinth” provides information to the cerebellum, at the base of the brain, about whether we are upright, lying down, etc. It maintains its own relation to gravity, and constantly provides the status of that relation to the brain. The labyrinth does not depend on our ability to hear to do its job, so we might think that balance should be unaffected by hearing loss.
The Brain Composes Our Sense of Space Out of All Available Senses
In fact, our sense of balance is created in the brain by an amalgam of our senses. The labyrinth does not do its job alone: our eyes, ears, and skin provide additional information that is interpreted in real-time to tell us where we are. Our senses work in concert. If our sense of sight is momentarily confused, the brain will rely on the labyrinth, ears, and skin to get it reoriented. Such are the relationships throughout the body. Given this interdependence of the senses, it begins to seem obvious that hearing loss could affect balance.
Echolocation and the Blind
An interesting piece of this puzzle is understood by a phenomenon we experience with blindness, where people without sight will learn to make clicking sounds with their mouths in order to get a sense of their environments. They are echolocating. Sighted people do not use their ears to this degree, but the blind describe the experience of clicking while moving their heads to actually be one of “seeing.” The brain uses this auditory information to put a scene together, and the experience, for a blind person, is one of creating an actual “visual”-seeming landscape in the mind.
Hearing Loss Changes Our Spatial Awareness
It makes perfect sense, then, that a person who has lived with the ability to hear for a long time will possess a brain that is wired to use that auditory information to help put together a sense of being in the world. When this person’s sense of hearing is diminished, the brain does not receive a full picture of the world around them, and can more easily make mistakes in spatial orientation.
Balance studies have been conducted that conclusively demonstrate the tie between hearing and balance, in people who have once had and now lost normal hearing ability. This was accomplished by having people with hearing loss attempt to balance on one foot for as long as they could. The subjects were then asked again to balance on one foot, but this time while wearing hearing aids. On average, with hearing aids in place, subjects were able to balance for 10 seconds longer. This is a major difference on a specific, single-minded task. Imagine the difference hearing aids can make when a person is moving around the world, with millions of bits of information coming into and being processed in the mind, all jumbled up and almost arbitrarily attracting primary attention. It’s no wonder that hearing loss can contribute to falls, which especially in concert with age-related concerns like osteoporosis can result in serious harm requiring long recoveries.
The good news is that hearing aids can restore hearing to a degree that these concerns are alleviated. While normal hearing is not completely restored with hearing aids, they can create a sense of near-normal hearing. Advances made over the last decades mean that hearing aids can integrate with technologies like Bluetooth or computer systems in cars, and they can help distinguish background noise from conversation. Modern hearing aids can be fitted (programmed) for a variety of individual needs, so we should get our hearing tested at the first signs that we feel we might be experiencing some hearing loss. Getting hearing aids sooner rather than later will allow us to maintain our overall sensory awareness of the world, to keep us active and feeling good long into our elder years.