Why it's important to treat hearing loss
October is National Protect Your Hearing Month.
It takes the average person approximately 5–10 years to get a hearing aid after discovering hearing loss.
Why so long? There are a number of factors:
- Gradual onset of the hearing loss causes a person to believe he or she hears “well enough”
- Other family members often compensate for the hearing loss and are bothered by it well before the person with hearing loss is ready to admit to a problem
- There is a stigma about wearing hearing aids
- Many people think hearing aids are for “old people”
- Hearing aids are expensive, and many insurance plans do not cover them
Scientific evidence shows that the sooner you get help, the easier it will be for your brain to use the pathways intended for listening and understanding.
This is true for children, whose auditory pathways are still being formed, which is why we fit babies with hearing aids as soon as hearing loss is identified.
It is also true for adults whose auditory pathways are already developed. We need to “use it or lose it.”
The longer one goes without the ability to hear well, the more work it will be to make sense of what is heard through hearing aids. Furthermore, there is a growing body of scientific literature showing that untreated hearing loss can negatively affect overall quality of life.
The communication effects of untreated hearing loss are fairly predictable: when a person cannot hear well, it is difficult to participate in group conversations and enjoy places that are noisy (such as restaurants). Listening can be exhausting. Meaningful conversation becomes work.
The psychological effects of untreated hearing loss are equally important. Daily struggle to hear and understand others can cause frustration, angry outbursts, embarrassment or withdrawal from activities. This limited social interaction can affect self esteem and confidence, and it can contribute to depression.
Furthermore, recent research has shown that hearing loss is strongly associated with dementia. People with hearing loss showed two to five times the incidence rate of dementia as did people with normal hearing.
The greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk for dementia.
What does this mean for people who wear hearing aids? This question is the focus of ongoing research. Here is what we know:
- Hearing loss can be associated with decreased social/emotional, communication and cognitive function as well as increased depression. These issues improve after hearing aids are fit.
- Make sure patients with dementia have every opportunity to connect with the people and environment around them. Wearing hearing aids will not change the declining cognitive function associated with dementia, but will allow a patient to interact with loved ones and the environment much better than without hearing aids — and without as much effort.
- Good communication strategies, consistent use of amplification and listening exercises provide the best possible benefit from hearing aids. Hearing what we need to hear is good “brain food.”
- Make sure hearing aids are matched to the patient’s listening needs. If you’re unhappy with your hearing aid, see an audiologist to determine if your hearing loss has changed, your hearing aid is programmed correctly or if the instruments need service or replacement.
- Research is under way to evaluate ongoing, consistent hearing aid use among patients with dementia, and also to explore the benefit of listening skill training.
The best results come from treating hearing loss as soon as it is identified. Using well-fitting hearing aids every day and using good communication strategies is not only smart — it’s brain smart.
About The Author
Joni Johnson, AuD, is a board-certified audiologist specializing in pediatric and educational audiology. Dr. Johnson is particularly interested in helping families who have a member with hearing loss develop healthy communication partnerships. She practices at MultiCare Gig Harbor – ENT Specialists.More stories by this author