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Hearing loss is a fairly common problem that can arise for several reasons, including exposure to loud noises, heredity disease, and advancing age.
According to a January 2019 study, more than half of US adults who are 60 years of age or older have a clinically significant hearing loss that impacts their ability to communicate. By the time people reach their 80s, more than 80% of them will have at least mild-to-moderate hearing loss.
Hearing loss has also been linked to several adverse health consequences, including a decline in physical function, an increase in the risk of falling, and a rise in depression.
The number of studies investigating these associations is relatively limited, however, and any associations between hearing loss and other ailments common to old age have yet to be studied.
Hearing loss can lead to cognitive decline
One correlation that is increasingly recognised by multiple studies is the association between hearing loss and accelerated cognitive decline and dementia. For example, a 2017 international analysis concluded that hearing loss is the most significant modifiable risk factor for dementia, exceeding that of smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and social isolation.
A more recent study at Johns Hopkins – based on the insurance claims of nearly 155,000 adults over the age of 50 – likewise found that untreated hearing loss increases the risk of developing dementia by 50% in just five years (when compared to those without hearing loss).
A February 2018 meta-analysis – which was based on 36 studies from 12 countries representing over 20,000 participants – found that age-related hearing loss is significantly associated with a decline in all main cognitive domains, as well as an increase in the risk of cognitive impairment and incident dementia.
A smaller Johns Hopkins study that tracked 639 adults for twelve years found that the risk for dementia increases as hearing impairment increases. Older adults with mild hearing impairment are twice as likely to develop dementia as those without any hearing loss.
In contrast, those with moderate hearing impairment are three times more likely to develop dementia, while those with severe hearing impairment are five times more likely.
Unfortunately, the researchers also concluded that the largest decline in cognitive ability occurs at the lowest level of hearing loss. For example, a hearing decline from zero (that is, being able to hear a pin drop) to 25 decibels (being able to hear a whisper) causes the most considerable cognitive loss, with smaller losses occurring when hearing deficits increase (for example, from 25 to 50 decibels).
Older adults are reluctant to treat hearing loss
Utah attorney Greg Bishop warns that despite the cognitive decline and other health consequences associated with hearing loss, many older adults are reluctant to seek treatment.
The World Health Organization reports that only one in five older adults who would benefit from using hearing aids actually wear them.
Common excuses to avoid using hearing aids include:
- Lack of knowledge (since hearing decline is often gradual, some older adults do not fully appreciate the magnitude of their individual hearing loss)
- Denial (older adults may feel their hearing loss is not sufficiently bad to warrant treatment)
- Vanity (many think that hearing aids are ugly or make them look older)
- Procrastination (some acknowledge needing hearing aids, but they procrastinate getting them)
- Difficult to use (some feel hearing aids are uncomfortable or provide too much auditory stimulation; others are nervous because of the bad experiences of others)
Even those who are willing to try hearing aids soon learn that hearing loss is more challenging to treat than poor eyesight. While putting on a pair of glasses can immediately improve vision, hearing loss takes a long time to correct.
For example, it may take a good month or two for the brain to adjust to the use of hearing aids, which will also need to be adjusted several times during that period.
Although a reluctance to treat hearing loss may be understandable at first blush, it does not withstand scrutiny when weighed against the increased risks of cognitive decline and other health impacts that may arise in failing to treat it. Like good dental hygiene, being proactive about your hearing health today can prevent many problems down the road.
Image credit: Freepik
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