February 12, 2015

Does the use of hearing aids improve balance — fact or fiction?

New CNHP ASU Logo

by D. Mike McDaniel, Professor of Communication Disorders / Arkansas State University

Recently, a team of researchers from a prestigious medical school published the results of a study in which they reported that hearing aid use apparently resulted in improved balance within an elderly sample of hearing impaired individuals (Rumalla, Karim, and Hullar, 2015). These findings were subsequently summarized in a second tier publication favored by, and directed at those, who dispense hearing aids. A recent internet search using “hearing aids” and “improved balance” as key words resulted in an alarming number of sites across the country that dispense hearing aids citing the article and its claims as a marketing tool. Given the fact that the elderly have the greatest risks for falls, which are the leading cause of injury and death in the elderly, and the elderly exhibit the largest incidence for hearing impairment, if the use of hearing aids do improve balance then certainly this information should be disseminated from within the scientific community following extensive clinical trials.

The method by which the medical school chose to assess and report balance was primitive and did not represent current state-of-the-art technology. Fortunately, the Arkansas State University Physical Therapy Department does have computerized posturography which is assessed via a sensory organization testing device. The device is a NeuroCom Balance Master. Through the combined effort of the Communication Disorders and Physical Therapy Departments, researchers were able to replicate the original study. Researchers used a similar population of adult experienced hearing aid users, the same research design, and the more sophisticated NeuroCom Balance Master.

The recent abstract of the AState replication project is as follows:
“The purpose of this study was to evaluate the balance of experienced adult hearing aid users with and without their hearing aids via Computerized Posturography (CP). CP was accomplished by employing the Sensory Organization Test (SOT) on the NeuroCom Balance Master. The SOT assessed each participant’s balance and the strategy used to maintain balance in six progressively challenging conditions. Twenty two adults using bilateral at-the-ear hearing aids participated in the study. All participants completed all SOT protocols with and without their hearing aids. No statistically significant differences in participants’ balance were identified regardless of the presence or absence of their hearing aids during SOT. These results failed to support previous research, which indicated that amplification of auditory input could benefit balance in individuals with hearing and balance disorders. Further research utilizing randomized controlled trials is needed to resolve the disparity between the current results and those of previous studies.”

Clearly, the results of this replication study did not support those from the original research report. In short, researchers were unable to demonstrate any statistical relationship between balance and the use of hearing aids from this group of participants. Findings do support the need for a comprehensive clinical trial before claims of improved balance from hearing aid use can be made.

References:

Rumalla, K., Karim, A. M., & Hullar, T. E. (2015). The effect of hearing aids on postural stability.
The Laryngoscope, 125, 720-723. doi: 10.1002/lary.24974