Hearing loss affects more than 48 million Americans and is the third most prevalent chronic health condition facing older adults. Although digital hearing aid technology is often the recommended treatment for the majority of sensorineural hearing loss cases, less than 20 percent of those who would benefit from treatment actually seek it. Those who do wait an average of 10 years to seek it; most wait until they cannot communicate in even the best of listening situations.
Those facts are concerning enough yet they’re even more disturbing when you learn of the other health and safety issues that can occur if you don’t address your hearing loss in a timely fashion.
Results from a study conducted by the National Council on Aging reveal significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression and social isolation in older adults with untreated hearing loss. Older adults with chronic depression are more likely to develop poor eating habits, have higher rates of insomnia and memory loss and increased mortality rates.
The good news? These psychological conditions improve with the use of hearing aids. Older adults who wear hearing aids are more likely to participate in social activities than those who do not. Relationships at home and at work, mental health, self-confidence and sense of safety improve with hearing aid use.
Our brain is highly involved in our sense of hearing. Although our ears collect sound from our environment, it’s actually our brain that is responsible for helping us understand it. When this auditory pathway is damaged by hearing loss, the brain begins to atrophy. Researchers believe this increases the risk for developing debilitating health issues such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Research conducted by Dr. Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University discovered individuals with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia as those with normal hearing. The risk increased to three times more likely in those with moderate hearing loss and five times more likely for those with severe hearing loss.
Fortunately, scientists have discovered that cognitive function in almost half of mildly impaired patients with dementia improves with amplification. Research by M. Kathleen Pichora-Fuller, a psychologist from the University of Toronto, is testing the hypothesis that treating hearing loss with cochlear implants or hearing aids in those with dementia will make it easier for them to listen so they can spend more of their energy performing more cognitively demanding tasks.
Even if you don’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s, you might be interested to know those who treat their hearing loss with amplification benefit in memory-related testing. Because hearing loss-related brain atrophy occurs in the areas of speech and sound, hearing healthcare professionals recommend you seek treatment as soon as possible, before structural changes in the brain take place.
Risk of injury from falling
Another study by Dr. Lin of John Hopkins University and Dr. Luigi Ferrucci M.D., Ph.D., of the National Institute on Aging discovered those with mild hearing loss — a 25 decibel (dB) hearing loss — were three times more likely to have a history of falling. With every 10 dB of hearing loss, the risk for falls increased by 1.4 percent. Lin said gait and balance are very “cognitively demanding” — as is hearing loss. That means when the brain is required to spend extra energy compensating for hearing loss, it has less to expend on gait and balance.
Untreated hearing loss can be dangerous to your personal safety, too. If you can’t hear well, you may not respond to important danger signals. This can be problematic at home if you can’t hear the smoke detector or community tornado siren. When you’re driving, you may miss hearing railroad crossing warnings or fire and police sirens.
Not only is reduced alertness dangerous to your personal safety, it may also impact those you love. Treating hearing loss can improve your overall awareness as a driver — which impacts those who travel with you as well as others on the road. Being able to hear smoke detectors is also critical to keeping your family safe. Studies have shown that regular smoke detectors which emit a high frequency sound are not always effective at waking those with hearing loss. Instead, those with mild to moderate hearing loss are more likely to be awakened by smoke alarms which emit low-frequency alarm sounds.
Now that you’re aware of just a few of the health and safety risks posed by untreated hearing loss, consider making an appointment with a hearing healthcare professional in your community right away.