Vestibular or Inner Ear System Weakens After Age 40

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Daniel M. Merfeld, Ph.D. Professor of Otolaryngology Harvard Medical School Massachusetts Eye and Ear Director, Jenks Vestibular Physiology Laboratory Senior Scientist

Dr. Daniel M. Merfeld

Daniel M. Merfeld, Ph.D.
Professor of Otolaryngology
Harvard Medical School
Massachusetts Eye and Ear
Director, Jenks Vestibular Physiology Laboratory
Senior Scientist

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: Nearly half of the population will see a clinician at some point in their lives with symptoms related to the vestibular system (e.g., dizziness, vertigo, imbalance and blurred vision). The vestibular system, made up of tiny fluid-filled membranes in the inner ear, is responsible for receiving information about motion, balance and spatial orientation. With the goal of determining whether age affected the function of the vestibular system, our research team administered balance and motion tests to 105 healthy people ranging from 18 to 80 years old and measured their vestibular thresholds (“threshold” refers to the smallest possible motion administered that the subject is able to perceive correctly).

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response: For five different motion conditions that we chose to investigate, we found that vestibular thresholds began to increase above the age of 40 for all five conditions; this threshold increase represents a decline in our ability to receive sensory information about motion, balance and spatial orientation. Up and down whole body translations showed the greatest threshold increase – an average increase of 80% every 10 years above the age of 40.

We also found that higher thresholds were correlated with failure to complete a balance test. In other words, even in this healthy population, balance deficits were highly correlated to higher vestibular thresholds.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Using data from previous studies, our paper noted that vestibular dysfunction could be responsible for over 50,000 American deaths each year, which we found surprising. Perhaps we can develop balance aids or physical therapy exercises to improve balance or vestibular function and prevent those falls?

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: We must quantify the links between vestibular function and balance and falls.

We should also develop improved screening tests that could be performed routinely – analogous to routine hearing and visions screens – to help reduce the public health burden associated with falls.

We need to develop an understanding for how and why vestibular function declines with age.
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Citation:

María Carolina Bermúdez Rey, Torin K. Clark, Wei Wang, Tania Leeder, Yong Bian, Daniel M. Merfeld. Vestibular Perceptual Thresholds Increase above the Age of 40. Frontiers in Neurology, 2016; 7 DOI: 10.3389/fneur.2016.00162

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