Ear Wax Impaction Contributes to Hearing Loss, Falls and Cognitive Decline

Preserving hearing in older age not only allows seniors to stay socially engaged and able to communicate effectively with others, hearing loss can contribute to an increased risk for cognitive decline.  And if the ear canal is blocked with debris, seniors may experience vertigo which can lead to falls and injury.

According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, more than 30 percent of elderly people have a condition in which the ear canal does not self-clean properly and wax, a combination of dirt, dust and debris, collects and can block the ear canal completely.  Impacted ear wax is estimated to affect nearly two-thirds of nursing home residents and is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. In patients with dementia, who may not be able to communicate a problem with their ears or hearing, impaction can result in behavioral problems. 

But before you run out to buy some Q-tips for grandma, it’s important to understand the best way to control earwax.  Seniors who use hearing aids should have regular ear checks with a professional.  Hearing aids need to be cleaned regularly and if necessary, a hearing specialist will remove wax buildup by softening it with hydrogen peroxide, saline or mineral oil and then extracting cerumen with a syringe or a curette.  Never put anything in the ear canal yourself, you can risk pushing the wax in deeper.  Only clean the external ear with a cloth.

Signs that the ears are impacted with cerumen include:

  • Earache, fullness in the ear, or a sensation the ear is plugged
  • Partial hearing loss, which may be progressive
  • Tinnitus, ringing, or noises in the ear
  • Itching, odor, or discharge
  • Coughing

Source:  American Academy of Otolaryngology

A 2014 Japanese study found that hearing and cognition improved significantly among elderly adults following cerumen removal.  The study concludes that routine ear canal exams may benefit elderly adults with memory disorders. Older adults or elder caregivers should make sure regular doctor appointments include a thorough examination of the ear canal.   For more information about ear wax blockage, follow this link to the Mayo Clinic website.