Hearing impairment linked to poorer physical function in older age

By Melanie Hinze
Hearing impairment may be linked to poorer physical function in older age, according to the results of a study published in JAMA Network Open.

The cohort study looked at 2956 community-dwelling older adults in the US from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study, and conducted both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. The mean age of the participants was 79 years, 58.3% were women and 79.7% were white. Pure tone audiometry was used to assess hearing thresholds and participants were then identified as having normal hearing (33%), mild hearing impairment (40%), moderate hearing impairment (23%) or severe hearing impairment (4%).

The study authors found that participants with hearing impairment had significantly poorer physical function, and, in particular, poorer balance compared with those without hearing impairment.

Over time (two to three visits over a maximum follow up of 8.9 years), participants with hearing impairment also experienced faster declines in the short physical performance battery (SPPB). SPPB was a composite score of balance, gait speed and time to stand from a chair and sit back down five times with their arms folded.

Participants with severe hearing impairment walked a mean of 5.13 m less than those with normal hearing, and those with moderate hearing impairment walked a mean of 2.81 m less during a 2-minute walk test, demonstrating worse walking endurance in participants with hearing impairment.

Associate Professor Melville da Cruz, ENT surgeon and otolaryngologist at The University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital, Sydney, said the associations between hearing impairment and decline in many functional elements with ageing were being increasingly recognised through longitudinal population studies such as this one.

‘As hearing loss is under-recognised and undertreated in the community, opportunities to address hearing loss in middle life and thereby potentially improve the quality of life in later years exist,’ he said. ‘The GP has a central role in both the early identification of patients with hearing loss and encouraging them to seek treatments which address this aspect of their healthcare.’

The authors concluded that hearing impairment may be a future target for interventions designed to slow the decline of physical function associated with ageing.
JAMA Network Open 2021; 4: e2113742.doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.13742.