As we age, the risk of developing hearing loss increases greatly. At the same time, hearing loss in older adults goes untreated in nearly 80% of all cases. While hearing loss isn’t commonly seen as a serious health issue, when left untreated hearing loss can have negative effects that ripple through our mental, social and physical health. Treating hearing loss can play a key role in minimizing the risk of other age-related health concerns such as dementia and falling accidents – health issues that are too big to ignore.
What Is Age-Related Hearing Loss?
We use the term “presbycusis” to refer to age-related hearing loss. The onset of presbycusis is often two-fold: a lifetime of hearing damage can accumulate into significant hearing injury and our auditory system becomes more vulnerable to harm as we get older.
Permanent hearing loss occurs when the delicate sensory cells of the inner ear are harmed. These cells, responsible for detecting sound waves in the air, are finely tuned but incredibly delicate. Exposure to loud noises can injure these cells and once injured, they have no way of repairing or replacing themselves. We start life with about 15,000 hair cells in each ear, but over time, noises, injuries and infections can take numerous hair cells out of commission, leaving permanent gaps in our ability to sense sound.
Added to cumulative hearing damage, as the body ages, the components of the auditory system become more delicate and prone to injuries. This vulnerability is evidenced by the rate at which risk of hearing loss increases in older adults. At age 55, risk of significant hearing loss begins to rise. At age 65, one in every four adults has some form of hearing loss and by age 75 that risk increases to one in two. After age 90, 90% of people are living with hearing loss.
Signs of Age-Related Hearing Loss
Indicators of age-related hearing loss may come on gradually and be hard to detect at first, so it is important to be vigilant to changes in your hearing. If you find yourself asking others to repeat themselves or speak up frequently, that is often the first sign your hearing may need to be tested. Also pay attention to the volume levels you set on televisions, radios and stereo systems. Volume levels set towards the maximum indicate that hearing at lower volumes is becoming difficult.
Some behavior changes also point towards age-related hearing loss. Reluctance to attend events in loud or busy settings can be a sign that hearing loss is making it hard to discern speech from noise. Withdrawing from conversations and phone calls can also mean that hearing is becoming harder for you and it is time to have your hearing tested.
Why Treat Hearing Loss?
While age-related hearing loss may seem inevitable, it is important to recognize that it is still important to treat hearing loss, whenever it occurs. Our hearing health is part of our overall bodily health and ignoring hearing issues can exacerbate other problems.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident, than the way treating hearing loss can improve cognitive performance as we age. Hearing loss strains the functioning of the mind, and uses extra resources to piece together sound fragments while taking focus away from other cognitive tasks. Untreated hearing loss is linked to cognitive difficulty including an increased risk of dementia. Also, the risk of falling injuries increases when unaddressed hearing loss is present because the mental resources used to hear divert energy from our balance and coordination.
Hearing loss can also take a toll on our mental and social health. Untreated hearing loss is linked to anxiety, depression and isolation, which can develop when our ability to communicate with others is limited. Hearing loss can make the world and our social lives much harder to navigate, drawing us away from friends, family and the experiences we enjoy.
While the consequences of untreated hearing loss can be dramatic, there is good news! Treating hearing loss is not only possible, it is an effective, adaptive way to manage hearing loss and minimize its negative effects. Modern hearing aids and assistive devices are not just amplification devices! They are custom programmed for your specific hearing loss and open up a world of possibilities to you. Treating hearing loss improves not just your hearing, but also reduces the health risks associated with unaddressed hearing loss.