Hearing loss is a very common condition, especially amongst older individuals. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 17 percent of adults in the U.S. have hearing loss, although only 20 percent of those who could benefit from treatment actually seek help. It is estimated that around 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.
Why Do People Wait Seven Years Before They Get a Hearing Aid?
So why are people postponing accessing treatment? Firstly, hearing loss is not seen as a particularly glamorous condition, and many individuals want to delay doing anything about their hearing because they believe that there’s a stigma attached.
It’s often difficult to come to terms with the fact that you need help, especially when you associate hearing loss with aging. For some, accepting that they have hearing loss means accepting a transition into old age, but this need not be the case. Hearing loss affects millions of people in the U.S. and can strike at any age.
Secondly, there is often a steep cost attached to getting a hearing aid. Depending on the technology, a hearing aid can cost anywhere from nearly $1000 - $6000 per device. While this doesn’t matter too much when it’s covered by insurance or a national health service, in the U.S. neither hearing aids, tests, or fittings are covered by Medicare (Part A & B). You must cover the whole cost yourself. This is a huge financial burden for people, and for those with a tighter budget, it means that purchasing a hearing aid is simply out of the question.
This being said, your Medicare Advantage plan or private insurance may provide some coverage, so check with your provider if this applies to you.
Does Untreated Hearing Loss Get Worse?
If hearing loss goes untreated, either because an individual chooses to delay it or doesn’t notice their symptoms, not only can it get worse over time, but it can also cause further health issues later on. The consequences of untreated hearing loss include cognitive decline, balance issues, depression, social isolation, and impaired memory.
In addition, hearing loss has several comorbidities such as memory disorders. Although hearing loss is more common with age, it is often ignored during the diagnosis and treatment of cognitive and memory disorders in elderly patients. Vision impairment is another comorbidity affecting between nine and 22 percent of adults over 70. As you might expect, the reduction of two senses can significantly reduce an individual’s quality of life.
Numerous studies have found an association between hearing loss and cognitive decline, and this is still an area receiving lots of research.
As hearing loss can also be mistaken for cognitive decline, medical professionals must ascertain the auditory status of older adults before making a diagnosis or proceeding with treatment for cognitive disorders.
Furthermore, there is a positive correlation between the degree of hearing loss and your risk of developing dementia as studied by Dr. Frank Lin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. It appears that if you have mild hearing loss you’re twice as likely to develop dementia, compared to those with normal hearing. If you have moderate hearing loss, this chance increases to being three times more likely, and if you have severe hearing loss, you're facing five times the risk.
Despite the link between the two conditions, it's important to emphasize that the consequences of hearing loss will likely be worse if it goes untreated. If you’re quick to pick up on your hearing loss symptoms, go to see your doctor for a hearing test and diagnosis, and get well-fitted hearing aids to suit your needs, the negative health effects of your hearing loss will likely be greatly reduced or delayed.
It is not yet entirely understood whether hearing aids are effective at preventing cognitive decline, or reversing it, but they’re important to use if recommended by your physician or audiologist.
Impaired Memory and Making Mistakes at Work
When hearing loss is left untreated and cognitive decline ensues, it can be hard to stop this from interfering with your normal day-to-day life. It’s one thing spending an extra few minutes asking yourself where you left your phone in your house, but when impaired memory leads to mistakes at work, this can severely affect your confidence in your ability to fulfil your role.
Issues With Balance
As your inner ear plays a vital part in both your hearing and your body’s ability to balance, when damage occurs to structures within this part of the ear, it isn’t surprising that both your hearing and balance can be affected.
Hearing loss doesn’t cause these balance problems, and nor do balance problems cause hearing loss. However, their reliance on the optimal functioning of closely related structures means they often occur together and can be two symptoms of one underlying condition.
Multiple organs must cooperate for balance control, and the ears play a key part in this system. The functioning of the ear and the vestibular system is complex, so disturbances in the inner ear itself can be problematic, as can changes in the connecting nerves of the inner ear and the way the brain interprets signals from the inner ear.
There are two particularly notable conditions where hearing loss and balance problems often occur in tandem — Labyrinthitis (an infection of the inner ear) and Ménière's disease (an increase in pressure within the labyrinth). These conditions can cause sensations of dizziness, nausea, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), fullness in the ear, and hearing loss.
Other problems with the inner ear such as ear infections, blood circulation problems in the inner ear, tumors, head injury, ototoxic medications, arthritis, eye muscle imbalance, and low blood pressure can also cause problems with your balance.
Depression and Social Isolation
One of the most commonly cited consequences of untreated hearing loss is the psychological toll it can take on the sufferer. Our social lives depend on our ability to communicate effectively with one another, so when you can’t hear very well (or at all), it drastically limits your ability to socialize. This can have a profoundly negative effect on your mental health, with studies linking untreated hearing loss and social isolation to an increased chance of developing depression.
Not Understanding Conversations
Sometimes you don’t even realize you are slipping into a more and more isolated existence when you have hearing loss, and people often become more reclusive slowly over time as communication becomes harder with the decline of their hearing.
When you feel like a burden because you have to ask people to repeat themselves, or you feel like you can’t complete tasks that require a level of communication with people in public (such as taking a trip to the grocery store), keeping to yourself might feel like the comfortable option.
Lower Quality of Life
If you’re missing out on the social side of life and experiencing low mood as a result, this can lead to a much lower quality of life, which is unlikely to improve until you access treatment. Getting treatment for hearing loss allows you to fully participate in conversations again and feel confident socializing with others, helping you to feel like your old self.
What to Do If You Think You Might Have Hearing Loss
If you’re experiencing hearing loss, it’s time to make an appointment with your physician. They will be able to assess your hearing and if necessary, refer you to an audiologist for a more comprehensive test.
If you don’t have hearing loss but are experiencing mild difficulties with your hearing, consider using a Personal Sound Amplification Product (PSAP) such as the Olive Smart Ear which can provide a personalized boost to environmental sounds around you, allowing you to hear that little bit better.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: