If you are an avid New York Times reader, you may have noticed a recent article titled “Hearing Loss Threatens Mind, Life and Limb” by Jane E. Brody. As the headline indicates, the article explores how hearing loss can affect a person’s health and wellbeing. Drawing on recent research, Brody discusses the availability of hearing aids, the health conditions that become more likely with untreated hearing loss, and the success rate of current hearing aids.
At this time, hearing aids and hearing treatment are not covered by most medical insurance plans, including Medicare. In 2021, hearing devices will become available over-the-counter, making them less expensive than they are now. For the time being, however, many people put off receiving treatment for hearing loss because of the cost.
Some people also do not realize they are experiencing hearing loss as they age because it is so gradual, and therefore they do not seek hearing testing or treatment. Dr. Frank R. Lin, head of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, suggests two good indicators for when a person should have their hearing tested. The first clue is when family members or close friends urge you to have your hearing test, and the second is when you find yourself often mishearing or not knowing what other people are saying.
Still, even for people who receive hearing testing and treatment, the difficulties are not over. Many people with hearing aids do not wear them—though they have often spent thousands of dollars to get tested and purchase the devices.
Dr. Lin credits this problem to the fact that not all hearing aids are created equal, and people sometimes give up too easily in getting used to their hearing aids or ensuring that they are properly adjusted. According to Dr. Lin, “Unrealistic expectations are a big part of this problem. It’s not like putting on a pair of glasses that immediately enables you to see clearly. Hearing loss is not fixed as easily as eyesight. The brain needs time — a good month or two — to adjust to hearing aids. And the earlier hearing loss is treated, the easier it is for the brain to adapt.”
Recent studies have linked untreated hearing loss to an increased risk of dementia, highlighting the importance of receiving proper testing and treatment. Researchers believe the increased risk of dementia is due to lack of stimuli, which leads to lower brain engagement and function. In addition, if your brain is struggling to decipher everything you hear, it is forced to use more capacity than usual to process sound. This can lead to memory problems because the brain cannot focus on remembering words if it is working too hard to decipher them.
These studies have also linked untreated hearing loss to a higher risk of falls. Our ears are essential to balance, so hearing loss often affects a person’s balance. Furthermore, a person may be more likely to fall if they are startled by someone or something that they do not hear approaching because of hearing loss.
Perhaps most surprisingly, untreated hearing loss is also connected to a risk of cardiovascular disease. Dr. Jennifer A. Deal, an epidemiologist and gerontologist who is one of the co-authors of the study, acknowledges that cardiovascular disease may be common among adults with untreated hearing loss and those with normal hearing. However, she believes the connection between untreated hearing loss and cardiovascular disease may be due to stress and social isolation caused by hearing loss.
With the increased risk of so many health conditions, it is no wonder that adults with untreated hearing loss typically incur higher healthcare costs and spend more and longer visits in the hospital. While author Brody encourages readers to receive proper hearing testing and treatment, she is also optimistic that changes in everyday life can lessen these risks for the general population. She cites the change in sirens in New York City—where police vehicles now use lower-frequency “rumbler sirens” that are 10 decibels quieter—as one example of changes that could slow hearing loss for city residents.
To learn more about hearing loss, hearing testing, treatment, and hearing aids, please contact our audiology practice today.