As the third most common medical condition in the United States, hearing loss affects 48 million Americans. For elder Americans, one in three over the age of 65 and 50% over the age of 75 experience some degree of hearing loss. For its prevalence, studies show that only 20% of people with hearing loss receive treatment.
Untreated hearing loss has been linked to a number of concerns that radiate beyond one’s health. On average, people wait an average of seven years from the time they first experience signs of hearing loss before they seek treatment. Treating hearing loss brings many benefits, such as improved cognitive function, higher earning power, and better physical and mental health.
Hearing happens in our brains. Our ears pick up sounds and translate those sound waves into impulses that are registered in our auditory cortex as sound. With untreated hearing loss, our cognitive abilities begin to strain as they attempt to decipher muddled sound signals. Studies from Johns Hopkins have revealed potential links between untreated hearing loss and dementia. Researchers found that as the brain struggles to hear, it creates a heavier cognitive load, detracting from our normal processes. The good news: Johns Hopkins found that people who treated hearing loss with hearing aids showed significantly improved cognitive function compared to their counterparts who did not. Hearing aids help to clarify and improve sound signals, which reduce the strain on our brains.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, 60% of people with hearing loss are in the work force or in educational settings. They say, “While people in the workplace with the mildest hearing losses show little or no drop in income compared to their normal hearing peers, as the hearing loss increases, so does the reduction in compensation.” Untreated hearing loss interferes with speech recognition and tends to raise levels of stress and anxiety. These factors may contribute poorly to performance on the job. Studies have found that treating hearing loss with hearing aids has improved performance on the job.
Our auditory system is connected to our system of balance. According to researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health hearing loss “could increase the risk of falls and injuries, lead to increased functional limitation and subsequent disability and reduce one’s activity and participation, leading to decreased quality of life.” One study found that “women with moderate or greater hearing loss had a 31% greater increased risk of disability compared to those with normal hearing.” In Australia, a study found that “people with moderate to severe hearing impairment had significantly poorer driving performance in the presence of auditory distractors compared to those with normal or mild hearing impairment.” While studies in this area are nascent, researchers have been honing the study process to identify deeper links between falls, functional limitations, and hearing loss.
Perhaps the most visible effect of hearing loss is social isolation. Untreated hearing loss interferes with our speech recognition abilities, which leads to a decline in communication. Difficulty in group settings, restaurants, and social interactions may eventually lead to withdrawal and avoidance of such situations. This may in turn contribute to higher levels of irritability, anger, fatigue, stress, and depression. As social creatures, untreated hearing loss is detrimental to interpersonal relationships. If you believe you, or someone you love, are experiencing hearing loss, seeking treatment is the first step to improving both your emotional and physical well-being.