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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Ears to Blame for Falls?

Inner Ear Balance Disorder May Put a Third of Adults at Risk for Falls
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 22, 2009 -- More than a third of older adults may unknowingly have an inner ear balance disorder that puts them at high risk of potentially disabling falls.

A new study shows that 35% of American adults 40 and older have vestibular dysfunction of the inner ear, which hampers their sense of balance control. People with symptoms of vestibular dysfunction were eight times more likely to experience a fall.

Researchers say falls in the elderly are among the most deadly, disabling, and costly health problems in the U.S.

“Given the high prevalence of this impairment, notably among the elderly, and the extraordinary costs associated with falls (exceeding $20 billion annually), screening for vestibular dysfunction in assisted living or nursing home facilities, for example, could be a life-saving and cost-effective practice,” write researcher Yuri Agrawal, MD, of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and colleagues in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Inner Ear Balance Disorder Common

Researchers say the inner ear vestibular system is critical to balance control, but the prevalence of vestibular dysfunction in older adults and its relationship to falls has not been studied until now.

The vestibular organs provide continuous feedback to the brain about the head’s motion and position relative to gravity, which is necessary to maintain proper balance. Dizziness is the most common symptom of vestibular dysfunction, but researchers say many people with the disorder do not experience symptoms and may be unaware there is a problem.

In the study, researchers studied more than 5,000 adults 40 and over who participated in a national health survey from 2001 to 2004. The participants filled out surveys including information about previous falls and history of dizziness and were screened for vestibular dysfunction using balance testing.

The results showed that 35% had vestibular dysfunction and the odds of having the inner ear balance disorder were higher with increasing age.

People with vestibular dysfunction were also more likely to report a history of dizziness and falls. Those who experienced dizziness were eight times more likely to have experienced a fall.

However, researchers point out that only 27% of those with the disorder experienced any symptoms and they were also at increased risk for falls.

The study also found that vestibular dysfunction was more common in people with less than a high school education, the hearing impaired, and those with diabetes.

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