Researchers at University of Texas in Dallas and North Texas University in Fort Worth are evaluating if hearing aids and related technologies can improve the balance of people with auditory problems. The study is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Texas Medical Research Collaborative.
Sense of balance relies on the vestibular system of the inner ear, as well as on sensory information from sight, touch, and hearing. Recent studies show a strong association between hearing loss among older adults and incidents of falling. A study published about a year ago shows among adults age 40 and older with even a mild hearing loss of about 25 decibels, were three times more likely to experience a fall, and the rate increases as hearing loss increases.
The study will identify people at risk of falling and evaluate different hearing aid technologies on balance and gait. Subjects with and without hearing loss will be monitored as they stand, walk, and perform routine daily tasks while repeating words or sentences that are played in the surrounding environment. These tasks will be done while wearing or not wearing hearing aids.
The first part of the project, led by UT-Dallas audiologist Linda Thibodeau (pictured right), will ask participants to stand or walk on a treadmill simulating normal virtual environments, and less frequent experiences, such as a walk in the forest. This approach aims to overcome shortcomings of earlier studies that failed to replicate real-life situations.
The study also will provide volunteer subjects with assessments of their hearing and balance abilities. People with hearing loss will assist the volunteer subjects with hearing aid evaluation and selection. Volunteers are expected to devote 10 to 12 hours over a period of six to eight weeks.
The second part of the project, led by North Texas physical therapist Nicoleta Bugnariu, will focus on balance and mobility. The study will measure patients’ gait and balance with reflective sensors placed on their arms, legs, and body. Researchers will compare results after six weeks of amplification to base-line tests taken before amplification to determine whether balance improves when the participant is able to hear better in a noisy environment.
“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,” says Thibodeau. “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.”
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