Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
It’s a ritual every year. First you make an appointment to have your annual physical exam, then to see your eye doctor and, if you live in a sunshine state, maybe even your dermatologist. But what about your hearing? When was the last time you scheduled an appointment to see your hearing healthcare professional? If you’re like most individuals, the last time you had your hearing tested may have been in middle school.
Perhaps it’s time to make hearing part of your annual healthcare routine. Maintaining your hearing health keeps cognitive pathways open, alerts you to other impending illnesses, keeps you socially connected and increases your earning potential.
Untreated hearing loss makes your brain shrink
Just in case you don’t already know this, your brain and your ears work together. Our ears collect noise, funnel it to the inner ear where it’s translated into electrical impulses and then send it along the auditory nerve to the brain where it’s interpreted as recognizable sound. When a person with normal hearing begins to develop hearing loss and that pathway begins to deteriorate, the brain gradually forgets how to hear sounds and certain areas begin to shrink.
According to a 2014 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging, older adults with hearing loss realized accelerated rates of brain atrophy compared to those with normal hearing. The areas of the brain with the most atrophy included those responsible for speech and sound. These areas also play a role in memory and sensory integration, which may explain why individuals with untreated hearing loss also experience higher risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In a January 2014 article in Johns Hopkins Medicine, Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D. suggested individuals who have been diagnosed with hearing loss be treated “sooner rather than later.”
“If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these difference we’re seeing on MRI, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place,” he said in the article.
Hearing problems may signal other medical issues
Hearing loss may also signal the onset of other serious health problems such as:
- Heart disease. Many researchers believe that low-frequency hearing loss may signal the onset of heart disease. Medical professionals think hearing health and heart health are related. When blood vessels are damaged by heart disease, it affects blood flow to the inner ear.
- Diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, individuals with diabetes are twice as likely to experience hearing loss as those who do not have the disease. Researchers suspect the high glucose levels associated with diabetes cause damage to the blood vessels in the inner ear.
- Kidney disease. An Australian research team discovered older adults with moderate chronic kidney disease (CKD) have a higher prevalence of hearing loss than those without CKD. Of the 2900 participants in the study age 50 and older, more than 54 percent of the participants with CKD reported some level of hearing loss, compared to 28 percent of participants without the disease. Researchers believe this is because of structural similarities between tissue of the inner ear and that of the kidney.
Hearing loss is socially isolating
Unlike the deaf culture, which has a robust, vibrant language and social acceptance, those who gradually lose their hearing can find themselves at risk for depression, anxiety and social isolation.
In a March 6, 2014 online article published by JAMA Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, study author Dr. Chuang-Ming Li, a researcher at the National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), said they found a significant relationship between depression and hearing loss among older adults. In the study, as hearing decreased, the percentage of depressed adults increased. Five percent of study participants with no hearing loss had bouts of depression compared to 11 percent of those who did have hearing loss.
In the same article, James Firman, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings. “People with hearing loss, especially those who don’t wear hearing aids, find it more difficult to communicate with other people, whether in family situations, social gatherings or at work.”
Hearing loss is often gradual
Just like vision, your hearing will begin to deteriorate as you age. Unfortunately, it happens so gradually, you often don’t realize you’re not hearing well until someone points it out to you. That’s one of the reasons hearing health professionals recommend getting a baseline hearing test at age 50, with follow up hearing tests every two years. The sooner it is detected, the sooner you can seek appropriate treatment for hearing loss.
Of course, if you’re experiencing pain or any sudden hearing loss, please seek medical treatment immediately.
Individuals with untreated hearing loss earn less
This may not seem like a health-related reason, until you consider how expensive untreated hearing loss can be.
When the Better Hearing Institute conducted a survey a few years ago, they discovered people with hearing loss lose as much as $30,000 annually in salary and wages. The good news is, those with mild hearing loss who used hearing aids cut the risk of that loss by 90 to 100 percent, hearing aid users with severe to moderate hearing loss reduced their risk by 65 to 77 percent.
A greater earning potential may mean better benefits, which can offset other healthcare costs. And, if you’re a student or still in the workforce, vocational rehabilitation programs may help pay for the cost of your hearing aids.
As you can see, it pays to incorporate hearing health into your annual healthcare routines. The first step is to find a hearing healthcare professional in your community – and the second is to make an appointment to have your hearing tested. The Healthy Hearing directory can help you take the first step – the rest is up to you.