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Inner Ear Dysfunction Puts Older Adults at Risk of Falls

After 40, dizziness makes them 12 times more likely to suffer serious injury, study finds

TUESDAY, May 26 (HealthDay News) -- About 69 million Americans over age 40 have some form of inner-ear dysfunction that causes dizziness and makes them up to 12 times more likely to suffer a serious fall, a new survey shows.

More than 22 million of those people are unaware of their risk, mostly because they've had no previous incidents of dizziness or sudden falls, said Johns Hopkins researchers who surveyed more than 5,000 men and women over age 40.

Compared to those with a healthy sense of balance, those with an inner-ear dysfunction who had experienced no symptoms were three times more likely to suffer a potentially fatal fall than other people, while those who'd experienced symptoms had a 12-fold greater risk, the study authors found.

The survey found that 85 percent of respondents over age 80 had a balance problem -- a rate 23 times higher than those in their 40s. People with diabetes were 70 percent more likely to have balance problems than those without the disease, according to the study.

The findings were published online May 25 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Vestibular imbalances need to be taken seriously, because falls can be fatal and injuries can be painful, lead to long hospital stays and result in significant loss in quality of life," Dr. Lloyd B. Minor, a professor and director of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a Johns Hopkins news release.

Accidental falls are a leading cause of death and injury among the elderly. Each year in the United States, falls kill about 13,000 seniors and result in more than 1.5 million visits to hospital emergency departments, the release noted.

"Our survey shows that balance testing needs to be part of basic primary care, and that all physicians need to be monitoring and screening their patients for vestibular dysfunction so that we can take preventive measures to guard against falling," Minor said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about falls and older adults.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, news release, May 25, 2009

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