In the United States there are about 48 million people who have some degree of hearing loss according to research performed by Fairway Hearing, although many find it difficult to recognize it. “People are often embarrassed about losing their hearing because they see it as a sign that they’re too old, so they ignore it and pretend it’s not happening,” says Alison Grimes, director of audiology at UCLA Health in Los Angeles.
They may also be concerned about the cost of hearing aids or how the technology looks or works. As a result, they take an average of seven years to seek help, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. However, when hearing loss is left untreated, it can be dangerous and even deadly. Here are nine truths to help you overcome resistance—or encourage a loved one to do so—so you can get the help you need.
Chances are you already own a pair or two of fashionable reading glasses and aren’t shy about wearing them. Presbyopia—the aging loss of the eye’s ability to focus on near objects—is the visual version of presbycusis—hearing loss that comes with age, Grimes says. Hearing aids may not yet be considered a fashion accessory, but they are much more discreet than those old cream-colored oversized gadgets. Plus, they’re worn by a lot of famous people, including Halle Berry, Jodie Foster, Robert Redford, and Rob Lowe. That is a group that almost all of us would like to belong to.
“The ear transmits information to the brain, and when hearing begins to decline, the brain changes as well,” explains Anu Sharma, a professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For example, as hearing declines, brain regions that process visual and sensory information begin to use part of the auditory cortex to understand sounds, a change that over time leads to less stimulation—and therefore impairment—of the auditory cortex, according to research by Sharma and colleagues.
When you strain to hear people speak in a crowded restaurant, for example, activity increases in your frontal and prefrontal cortex, which are areas of the brain that help you think, pay attention, concentrate, and remember things for short periods (what is known as working memory). “Because you use these brain areas to listen, you can’t use them as effectively to understand the meaning of what is being said, so your comprehension is less,” says Sharma. Research has confirmed that those with hearing loss have deficits in the brain’s executive function and processing speed, she adds, and this research has also linked hearing loss to dementia. However, an international analysis published in The Lancet in 2017 ranked hearing loss as one of the top modifiable risks for dementia. “The idea that it can be modified is promising,” says Sharma. “Our research confirmed that a well-fitting hearing aid can reverse cognitive problems.”
Those with hearing loss may not hear smoke detectors, bells or sirens signaling inclement weather, warns Jackie Clark, a clinical professor in the School of Brain and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas and past president of the American Academy of Audiology. “One of my patients didn’t listen when a man broke into her house and knocked over a cupboard,” Clark recounts. “She was not physically injured, but the revelation that she was unaware of her surroundings took an emotional toll and motivated her to purchase hearing aids.” In addition, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute on Aging revealed that those with mild hearing loss are three times more likely to experience falls than those with normal hearing.
“Even minimal hearing loss can increase stress, and that stress can lead to all kinds of problems, including muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, frustration, anger, irritability, and depression,” says Angela Shoup, Professor of Ear, Nose, and Throat and chief of the division of communication and vestibular disorders at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
When listening is hard, trying to follow conversations is exhausting. “It requires a lot more concentration and that leads to fatigue,” says Sharma. Over time, that level of effort can become overwhelming and take the joy out of time spent with loved ones.
“In a perfect world, we eat healthy foods, stay physically active, and get regular cancer screenings because we know those behaviors are good for us,” says Grimes. Hearing screening and treatment for hearing loss are essential facets of that plan to stay healthy.
There are “invisible” hearing aids that sit in the ear canal or behind the ear, and digital signal processing allows audiologists to adjust them to your needs. Also, as soon as the Food and Drug Administration implements legislation that passed in 2017, you will be able to purchase less expensive hearing aids without a prescription that have the same technology as prescription ones (although getting hearing aids through an audiologist may still offer a higher degree of personalized attention).
If you constantly ask people to speak louder or repeat what they say, they will pick up on what’s going on. It’s encouraging to know that you can protect yourself from the problems caused by hearing loss and use the technology available to help you overcome it.
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