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Hearing Problems May Lead To Walking Problems In Older Women

February 11, 2010
As people age, it often becomes harder to carry out daily activities, such as walking. New research suggests that older adults with poor hearing may have worse balance, run higher risks of falling and have more trouble walking and carrying out other daily activities than seniors with better hearing. Researchers studied 434 older women over the course of three years to look for a possible link between poor hearing and difficulty walking in later life. At the start of the study, all the women were between 63 and 76 years old, high-functioning and living in the community, rather than in a nursing home or assisted-living facility. Researchers tested each woman's hearing and evaluated walking ability, recording each woman's fastest walking speed and how far she could walk in 6 minutes. They also asked each woman whether she had any problems or difficulties walking two kilometers (about 1-1/4 miles). Three years later, at the end of the study, the researchers again asked each woman whether she had any difficulty walking two kilometers. They found that women who had poor hearing at the beginning of the study walked more slowly than those with normal hearing. In addition, those with difficulty hearing weren't able to walk as long a distance in 6 minutes as those with normal hearing. Women with hearing problems at the beginning of the study also had more serious problems walking two kilometers than those who had normal hearing and were twice as likely to develop difficulties walking over the three-year course of the study than the women who had normal hearing. There are several possible reasons that poor hearing might be associated with difficulty walking. One is that people who can't hear well miss sound cues that help them know how they're oriented in space. Without these cues, walking can be more difficult. Impaired hearing is linked to impaired balance and greater risk of falls, both of which may underlie the development of difficulty walking. These findings highlight the importance of preventing hearing loss and addressing hearing loss if it occurs. "[This] is important not only for the ability to communicate, but it may also have more wide-ranging influences on functional ability and well-being among older people," the researchers wrote in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Additional studies of men, people of different ages and seniors with severe hearing problems and difficulties walking are needed, they added. If you're having trouble hearing or are experiencing changes in your ability to walk, experts suggest bringing this to the attention of your healthcare provider.