Hearing loss is a devastating condition, which affects millions of people, especially as they are aging. However, it is not just about actually hearing sounds – people who are suffering from hearing impairment in many cases are also struggling to maintain balance. A new device, designed at the University of Queensland could improve balance for hearing impaired, preventing them from falling.

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Hearing loss usually comes with other problems such as an inability to maintain balance. Image credit: Heptc via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hearing loss is more common among the elderly. They are also more likely to fall because of other reasons, such as frailty. Also, a casual fall is very dangerous for them due to reduced bone strength. This is just a bad combination of an increased likelihood of a fall and an increased risk of sustaining serious injuries because of it.

Scientists wanted to see whether a simple device could improve people’s balance and help them avoid serious falls due to hearing loss. The device in question is a very compact wearable, worn around the waist. It records body sway during a series of balance exercises – people don’t have to wear it all the time. Essentially, it is worn during practice sessions, providing feedback when the person is doing something wrong. This feedback is given through vibrations, which are easy to feel regardless of clothing or body position.

Basically, hearing loss can be caused by a variety of factors, but it is usually related to damaged inner ear. This is basically the mechanism responsible for hearing loss in the elderly. Inner year, however, is not responsible solely for hearing – it is also very important for maintaining balance. And so, when it becomes weak, people start to sway more, leading to dizziness and dangerous falls.

The device scientists are currently testing will be worn by volunteers for 30 minutes each day for 10 days. Scientists will assess the effectiveness of the device and then go on from there. They will see if it actually helps or balancing exercises are good enough by themselves. If the device proves to be effective, scientists will have to move onto designing and actual commercial product. Hearing impaired would use it to basically retrain their brain to feel their sway using tools that are left despite the impaired hearing. Current prototype is actually quite bulky, but the finished device should be fairly slip, easy to use and carry.

Western population is aging very quickly. This means that age-related health problems will become huge public health problems and we will need new tools to deal with them. This balance improvement device would help older people to maintain mobility, avoid painful injuries and remain more independent. However, they would still have to put in some effort into balance training.

Source: University of Queensland

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