According to the World Health Organization, 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, including 34 million children. While hearing loss is rarer among people under age 40, the likelihood of a hearing disability increases with age. About 2% of adults age 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. That jumps to nearly 25% for people in the 65-to-74 range, and 50% for those ages 75 and older.
Within the last decade, scientists have begun to focus more on the potential harms of hearing loss as well as loneliness, which can be a side effect of hearing loss. It has become clear that both conditions have enormous medical consequences.
Hearing loss can lead to more serious health issues
Untreated hearing loss increases the risk of dementia by 50%, depression by 40%, and trips and falls by 30% over a 10-year period, according to a study published in JAMA Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery.
Research shows that loneliness is associated with high blood pressure, elevated stress hormones and weakened immune systems. These feelings of isolation also raise the risk of dementia by 40% and the odds of early death by 26%, according to recent studies.
“Untreated hearing loss has been found to be associated with depression and memory problems,” says Dr. Kristy Baldwin, a clinical audiologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers. “Hearing loss can cause isolation because it can be difficult to socialize, which then may lead to avoidance of activities once previously enjoyed.”
Baldwin encourages individuals to be tested as soon as they notice a hearing issue.
“Anytime you notice a possible hearing problem is a good time to be tested, regardless of age,” she says. “Many adults develop hearing loss in their 50s and 60s, so it is also a good idea to have a screening at age 50. Early detection and diagnosis of hearing loss is critical to successful management of hearing problems.”
Still, patients often delay or resist addressing hearing problems due to cost, stigma and potential technical issues with hearing aids. Dr. Baldwin argues that it’s time to put that notion aside, as assistive hearing devices become more advanced every year.
“Newer hearing aids have more sophisticated and automatic processing than previous generations’ devices,” says Baldwin. “Hearing aids equipped with Bluetooth capabilities, rechargeable devices and controlled settings through an app on your phone are also widely available.”
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