Millions of Americans live with challenged hearing. It’s a substantial obstacle in our highly verbal society, particularly for people who encounter hearing loss later in life. Despite decades of work by activists and advocates, the hearing loss that typically arrives in old age still remains largely untreated in a surprisingly high number of individuals.
There are incredible physical, mental and emotional benefits to be found in finding the courage to confront hearing loss.
How Hearing Loss Works
Hearing loss is a complex condition that can result from various factors, including genetic predisposition, aging, noise exposure, certain medications, infections, or underlying health conditions. It can be categorized into two types: conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with the middle or outer ear, while sensorineural hearing loss stems from damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. Mixed hearing loss combines elements of both.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
One in three people over the age of 65 lives with hearing loss. The most common type of hearing loss people find themselves dealing with as they age is sensorineural hearing loss as a result of the aging process itself. We are born with a finite number of sensitive inner ear cells that are essential to healthy hearing. They do the heavy lifting of receiving sounds from the world around us and transforming them into sound information, as electrical signals, that are then sent to the brain for translation into meaning.
Over time, these cells decay and their health declines. They neither repopulate nor repair themselves and as they degrade, the number of cells we are working with lessens. Without the proper equipment to gather the wide spectrum of sounds occurring, we are able to collect less and less. We send less sound information to the brain, most often missing certain frequencies so that the sound we do hear is difficult to interpret.
The Danger Of Untreated Hearing Loss
Because the process of losing one’s hearing is quite gradual, it’s a difficult condition to self-diagnose. Most often, it’s first friends and family that notice changes in behavior as a result of hearing loss.
Specifically, understanding speech poses significant problems. Inherently, hearing loss undermines our natural ability to communicate and connect with others. Stemming from this are a number of negative mental, emotional and physical impacts.
Depression is widely reported among people with hearing loss. It’s posited that mental and emotional health suffers when we are cut off from social connections with those around us, including our friends and family, when conversation becomes frustrating and effortful. A sense of isolation can grow.
People with untreated hearing loss are more likely to suffer an accidental fall within their homes. Hearing is fundamentally connected to our ability to orient ourselves in the physical world and is related to the function of balance. By ignoring hearing loss, we leave ourselves open to the risk of accidental injury.
Perhaps most compelling is the impact that untreated hearing loss has on our cognitive, or brain, health. People with even mild untreated hearing loss are three times as likely to develop a future cognitive disorder like dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease further down the road.
In a survey conducted in 2020, experts found that one of the main obstacles preventing people with hearing loss from seeking treatment was a general confusion about how to attend to hearing health and the ways to treat hearing loss. It is certainly a wide and far-ranging field! There are untold numbers of products on the market, many of which go into great technical detail in articles and on each manufacturer’s websites. It’s an intimidating arena to navigate on one’s own.
To dip a toe in the water of confronting hearing loss, speak to your primary healthcare provider or go directly to an audiologist for a hearing exam and diagnosis. Only once it has been determined that you might be a good candidate for hearing aids is it time to broach the subject of which hearing interventions to choose. For guidance, a conversation with an audiologist, while they can evaluate your audiogram (hearing exam results), can help to narrow the field and reveal which hearing loss solution is your best fit.
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