Hearing loss affects roughly 48 million Americans. While about one-third of adults age 65 and up have hearing loss, the rate climbs to two-thirds of those above age 75, and nearly 100% of centenarians have some hearing loss. This suggests that we will all experience hearing loss if we live long enough.
Unfortunately, hearing loss is undertreated. Most people wait an average of seven years from the time they notice hearing loss to the time they do something about it. It’s understandable that we wish to avoid using hearing aids if possible, but the numbers indicate that even mild hearing loss (25–40 dBHL) has negative consequences for our general health and well-being.
Frequent Problems Encountered with Mild Hearing Loss
One of the first things people notice when they have hearing issues is that understanding speech becomes difficult when background sound is present. Visiting a restaurant can become a daunting task when we can’t hear our conversational partners or waitstaff. This, taken by itself, might not seem like a big deal, but the picture is a little larger than that.
When we have trouble hearing those around us, our brains have to do a lot of extra work to try to track down the information that’s being conveyed through speech. Normally, our auditory cortex processes incoming sound, identifies speech, and places it in short-term memory. When we’re not hearing properly, our frontal cortex needs to pick up some of the slack by trying to interpret context clues, guessing at consonant sounds, tracking facial movements, etc. This makes conversation a lot more difficult, as we need to spend a lot of extra mental energy determining what is being said. It slows us down and wears us out, and even reduces the amount of information that makes it to our memory.
The fatigue associated with straining to listen can sometimes be mistaken as a separate condition, especially for those with age-related hearing loss. We might imagine that getting tired sooner is another part of getting older, when in fact we’re only getting tired because we can’t hear that well. Similarly, the memory issues that can accompany even mild hearing loss can be mistaken for “senior moments,” when again a properly fit set of hearing aids would allow our brains to work in the way they’re supposed to.
As time goes on, even if our hearing loss doesn’t progress (in fact, it tends to plateau at a certain point), the fatigue and memory problems associated with social outings tend to make us less inclined to participate in them. This is why loneliness, depression, and social isolation are such frequent outcomes of untreated hearing loss. If we’re not enjoying our social time, we tend to start to shy away from it. Unfortunately, loneliness itself inspires chronic stress. Researchers have linked loneliness to devastating effects on physical health—about the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Hearing loss in a partner is also a common complaint. Hearing loss tends to strain our relationships with those around us. Communication starts to become less frequent and limited only to the most important things we need to exchange. We miss out on much of the joy of being together when we can’t hear each other, and this is especially unfortunate for partnered individuals who may be entering retirement. When we finally have the opportunity to enjoy so much recreational time together, don’t we want to be able to hear each other as easily as we can?
Why Is Hearing Loss Undertreated?
There is likely a conglomerate set of reasons that hearing loss is undertreated. Many people are resistant to wearing hearing aids for their own reasons and it’s easy to resist using assistive technology when we feel like we can get along without it. The problem is that it’s difficult for us to know when hearing loss has reached a point where it negatively impacts our lives. The best course of action is to get a regular hearing test (once a decade until age 50, and once every three years thereafter) so that a professional can assess whether hearing aids would be beneficial for us. As hearing tests are not currently part of a routine medical examination, it’s up to us to make regular appointments for ourselves.
Additionally, most insurers do not cover hearing aids, or cover only a portion of their cost. Hearing aids are typically a considerable investment that we may wish to avoid making for as long as possible, but investing in our health is important. While studies conducted throughout recent decades indicate that hearing health is crucial to general health, the medical industry has not yet caught up. If you have financial difficulty procuring a set of hearing aids, the HLAA (Hearing Loss Association of America) lists some resources available on its website. Our office also offers many payment options to ensure you hear your best without cost being a factor.
If you or a loved one may be struggling with hearing loss, or if you’re due for a hearing test, make an appointment today and start keeping track of your hearing health!