It should not be surprising to find correlations between manifestations of age-related degeneration, even those in which it is debatable as to whether age-related condition A can contribute meaningfully to the progression of age-related condition B, as is the case for hearing loss and physical frailty. All age-related conditions and aspects of aging arise from the same set of underlying forms of cell and tissue damage. Different people accumulate that damage at somewhat different rates, due largely to lifestyle choices and environmental factors. If someone exhibits greater consequences of aging in one part of the body, the odds are good that degeneration in the rest of the body is also more advanced.
Physical functioning is necessary for independent living and tends to decline with age. Hearing impairment, which affects approximately two-thirds of adults older than 70 years, is a risk factor for various adverse outcomes. Hearing impairment may also adversely affect physical functioning through reduced perception of auditory input that contributes to walking and balance. However, research characterizing the association between hearing impairment and objective physical function and walking endurance measures is limited.
Associations between self-reported hearing impairment and poorer physical function have been reported previously. However, self-reported hearing impairment is prone to measurement error and has been shown to underestimate associations with objective measures of function. Although studies with audiometrically assessed hearing, the criterion-standard clinical measure, have revealed associations with slower gait and poorer physical function, these studies did not assess associations with physical function components separately. Therefore, we investigated the association of hearing impairment with physical function and walking endurance in a cohort of community-dwelling older adults in the US.
In this cohort study, hearing impairment was associated with poorer physical function and walking endurance in cross-sectional analysis and faster declines in physical function in longitudinal analysis. These associations were graded in general, with stronger associations among individuals with worse hearing. The differences in gait speed and walking endurance between participants with severe hearing impairment vs those with normal hearing were clinically meaningful according to previous literature. Collectively, these findings suggest that individuals with hearing impairment may be at greater risk for physical function limitations.