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Listen Up! 7 Facts About Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a common chronic condition, especially as we age. Approximately 48 million Americans have significant hearing loss, says Roselynn Young, AuD, owner of Roseville Dianostic Hearing Center. Dawn Alden, ND, at Revolutions Naturopathic says nearly half of people aged 75 years and older have trouble hearing. “While loud noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, it can also stem from earwax blockage, certain diseases, trauma to the head and/or ear, frequent ear infections, aging, medications, or [genetics],” Dr. Alden says.

It can be hard to recognize age-related hearing loss, as the loss is a gradual process. You may have a problem and not know it. Read on to learn more about the signs of hearing loss and how it can impact your overall health.

Watch for Warning Signs
Hearing loss often goes unrecognized due to slow progression. “In an article published in the American Academy of Family Physicians, the authors report 80% of patients 65 and older with moderate to profound hearing loss did not perceive themselves as hearing impaired,” says L. Mark Payne, AuD, and Director of Audiology at Marshall ENT and Hearing Center. Dr. Alden suggests speaking with your doctor if you have any of the following signs of hearing loss: trouble hearing over the telephone, difficulty following conversations, regularly asking people to repeat what they’re saying, turning up the volume on your TV so loud that others complain, having a problem hearing because of background noise, thinking that others mumble in conversations, and/or not understanding women and children when they speak to you.

Impaired Cognitive Health
Hearing loss can be one of the first signs of a greater cognitive disorder, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. Cognitive decline creates cognitive overload, which is the inability to process the information you’re being told, says William Forrest, owner of Cognitive Hearing Centers. “If you have hearing loss and can’t hear people around you, especially in noise, this is cognitive overload. When we can’t understand 50% of the conversation, we tend to check out.” When left untreated, hearing loss accelerates cognitive decline and cerebral atrophy (or brain shrinkage) and increases the risk of social isolation. “There are now over 26 scientific studies connecting cognitive decline to untreated hearing loss, which in fact is a precursor to Alzheimer’s,” Forrest shares.

Increased Risk of Falls
Hearing loss is also linked to an increased risk of falls in seniors, which oftentimes can be life-threatening. Dr. Payne says researchers at John Hopkins University, in coordination with the National Institute on Aging, concluded that those with hearing loss—even mild hearing loss—were significantly more likely to fall than those without hearing loss. “They also concluded that the greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk—from three times greater for mild loss to seven times greater for severe loss,” he says. Hearing loss that initiated cognitive overload would impact balance through a decreased awareness of surroundings, which could lead to the damaging falls. “Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine concluded that hearing aids appear to improve balance in older adults,” he says.

Impact on Overall Health
Dr. Payne says diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss can lead to a better quality of life and overall improved health. “Like heart disease and diabetes, the longer hearing loss is unaddressed, the greater the impact on a person’s health.” Studies show that those with hearing loss are more likely to suffer psychosocial disorders such as depression, anxiety, fear, anger, paranoia, withdrawal, and isolation. Relationships with friends and loved ones will also suffer, as those with difficulty hearing may become more isolated out of embarrassment of being unable to hear or understand, Dr. Alden says.

Increased Costs if Undetected
Not treating your hearing loss might cost you more in the long run, especially if additional health conditions develop. “Hearing loss can increase the risk of developing dementia by 200-500%, and statistics show that the average family will spend approximately $57,000 per year to cover health care costs and manage the care of a loved one with dementia,” Forrest says.

It’s never too late to protect your ears. “Hearing loss due to noise is preventable, so it’s imperative to be aware of how loud you’re listening to music and personal listening devices. Keep the volume down and make sure to wear ear protectors when working with loud power tools and equipment,” Dr. Young says. According to Dr. Alden, “Common chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and elevated blood pressure, can affect your ears...[also], let your doctor know if you start to experience hearing issues with your medication,” she says. Maintain regular check-ups with your primary care doctor once a year. “If you suspect hearing difficulty, a simple and quick office hearing test can be performed,” she says.

Improved Quality of Life
Forrest, an Army veteran who was exposed to explosives, was diagnosed with hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). “The medical treatment of hearing loss also helps relieve tinnitus,” he says. “It has really improved my quality of life and minimized the ringing.” Dr. Payne says improved hearing is improved health and quality of life. “If you have any concerns or if loved ones and friends complain about your hearing, have this discussion with your family doctor. Your issues may be as simple as wax occlusion or as significant as progressive ear disease process,” he says.