In a nationally representative sample of adults aged 70 or more years, moderate or more severe hearing impairment was associated with an increased risk of death, with greater impairment increasing the risk, compared with older adults without hearing impairment, according to a study published online by JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

Hearing impairment is common in older adults; its prevalence doubles with every decade of life, affecting two-thirds of adults aged more than 70 years, and has been shown to be associated with various negative health outcomes. Using combined data from the January 2005 to December 2006 and January 2009 to December 2010 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Kevin J. Contrera, MPH, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and colleagues studied 1,666 adults aged 70 or more years who had undergone audiometric testing. Severity of HI was defined per World Health Organization criteria.

Compared with individuals without hearing impairment, individuals with it were more likely to be older, male, white, former smokers, less educated and have a history of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Moderate or more severe hearing impairment was associated with a 54% increased risk of death, and mild hearing impairment with a 27% increased risk of death, compared with individuals without hearing impairment. After further adjustment for demographic characteristics and cardiovascular risk factors, the results suggested that hearing impairment may be associated with a 39% and 21% increased risk of death in individuals with moderate or more severe hearing impairment and mild hearing impairment, respectively, compared with individuals without hearing impairment.

An analysis restricted to individuals aged 80 or fewer years yielded results that also suggest a positive association between hearing impairment and mortality.

Potential mechanisms for these findings, according to the authors, include causal connections of hearing impairment with cognitive, mental, and physical function.

“Future studies are required to explore the basis of the association of [hearing impairment] with mortality and to determine whether therapies to rehabilitate hearing can reduce mortality,” they say.