Hearing Loss Tied to Decline in Physical Functioning

Jake Remaly

June 30, 2021

Older adults with hearing impairment tend to have poorer physical function, less walking endurance, and faster declines in physical function compared with older adults with normal hearing, according to a study published online in JAMA Network Open.

Hearing loss is associated with slower gait and, in particular, worse balance, the data suggest.

"Because hearing impairment is amenable to prevention and management, it potentially serves as a target for interventions to slow physical decline with aging," the researchers said.

To examine how hearing impairment relates to physical function in older adults, Pablo Martinez-Amezcua, MD, PhD, MHS, a researcher in the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues analyzed data from the ongoing Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study.

ARIC initially enrolled more than 15,000 adults in Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, and North Carolina between 1987 and 1989. In the present study, the researchers focused on data from 2956 participants who attended a study visit between 2016 and 2017, during which researchers assessed their hearing using pure tone audiometry.

Hearing-study participants had an average age of 79 years, about 58% were women, and 80% were White. Approximately 33% of the participants had normal hearing, 40% had mild hearing impairment, 23% had moderate hearing impairment, and 4% had severe hearing impairment.

Participants had also undergone assessment of physical functioning at study visits between 2011 and 2019, including a fast-paced 2-minute walk test to measure their walking endurance. Another assessment, the Short Physical Performance Battery (SPPB), tests balance, gait speed, and chair stands (seated participants stand up and sit back down five times as quickly as possible while their arms are crossed).

Martinez-Amezcua and colleagues found that severe hearing impairment was associated with a lower average SPPB score compared with normal hearing in a regression analysis. Specifically, compared with those with normal hearing, participants with severe hearing impairment were more likely to have low scores on the SPPB (odds ratio [OR], 2.72), balance (OR, 2.72), and gait speed (OR, 2.16).

However, hearing impairment was not significantly associated with the chair stand test results. The researchers note that chair stands may rely more on strength, whereas balance and gait speed may rely more on coordination and movement.

The team also found that people with worse hearing tended to walk a shorter distance during the 2-minute walk test. Compared with participants with normal hearing, participants with moderate hearing impairment walked 2.81 meters less and those with severe hearing impairment walked 5.31 meters less on average, after adjustment for variables including age, sex, and health conditions.

Participants with hearing impairment also tended to have faster declines in physical function over time.

Various mechanisms could explain associations between hearing and physical function, the authors said. For example, an underlying condition such as cardiovascular disease might affect both hearing and physical function. Damage to the inner ear could affect vestibular and auditory systems at the same time. In addition, hearing impairment may relate to cognition, depression, or social isolation, which could influence physical activity.

"Age-related hearing loss is traditionally seen as a barrier for communication," Martinez-Amezcua told Medscape Medical News. "In the past decade, research on the consequences of hearing loss has identified it as a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia. Our findings contribute to our understanding of other negative outcomes associated with hearing loss."

Randomized clinical trials are the best way to assess whether addressing hearing loss might improve physical function, Martinez-Amezcua said. "Currently there is one clinical trial (ACHIEVE) that will, among other outcomes, study the impact of hearing aids on cognitive and physical function," he said.

Although interventions may not reverse hearing loss, hearing rehabilitation strategies, including hearing aids and cochlear implants, may help, he added. Educating caregivers and changing a person's environment also can reduce the effects hearing loss has on daily life, Martinez-Amezcua said.

"We rely so much in our sense of vision for activities of daily living that we tend to underestimate how important hearing is, and the consequences of hearing loss go beyond having trouble communicating with someone," he said.

This study and prior research "raise the intriguing idea that hearing may provide essential information to the neural circuits underpinning movement in our environment and that correction for hearing loss may help promote physical well-being," Willa D. Brenowitz, PhD, MPH, and Margaret I. Wallhagen, PhD, GNP-BC, both at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in an accompanying commentary. "While this hypothesis is appealing and warrants further investigation, there are multiple other potential explanations of such an association, including potential sources of bias that may affect observational studies such as this one."

Beyond treating hearing loss, interventions such as physical therapy or tai chi may benefit patients, they suggested.

Because many changes occur during older age, it can be difficult to understand which factor is influencing another, Brenowitz told Medscape Medical News. There are potentially relevant mechanisms through which hearing could affect cognition and physical functioning. Still, another explanation could be that some people are "aging in a faster way" than others, Brenowitz said.

Martinez-Amezcua and a coauthor disclosed receiving sponsorship from the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health. Another author, Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, directs the research center, which is partly funded by a philanthropic gift from Cochlear to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Lin also disclosed personal fees from Frequency Therapeutics and Caption Call. One author serves on a scientific advisory board for Shoebox and Good Machine Studio.

Wallhagen has served on the board of trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America and is a member of the board of the Hearing Loss Association of America–California. Wallhagen also received funding for a pilot project on the impact of hearing loss on communication in the context of chronic serious illness from the National Palliative Care Research Center outside the submitted work.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online June 25, 2021. Full text

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