More than 30 million Americans live with one of the leading chronic health conditions. One in eight people over the age of 12 shows hearing loss in both ears, according to standard hearing exams. And while it is most often an irreversible and progressive condition, a scant few choose to treat hearing loss.
But the cost of avoiding a hearing loss diagnosis and subsequent treatment can be much more damaging, now and down the road, than an investment in your hearing health today.
Causes of hearing loss
While people of all ages experience hearing loss, it is a condition that disproportionately impacts older folks. One third of people over the age of 65 live with hearing loss and age continues to be the greatest predictor of the diagnosis. The explanation for this is quite simple: the natural aging process is responsible for most cases of hearing loss.
We have delicate and integral cells located within the inner ear. These cells collect sound from the external world and transmute it into sound information in the form of electrical signals, which are then sent to the brain. In our brain’s processing centers, we make meaning of this translated information and it becomes sound and language.
As we age, the important cells of the inner ear deteriorate and we lose access to sound. Our brain gets less information and we experience that as hearing less. When age is the culprit, this type of hearing loss is called age-related.
For other people, exposure to excessive noise (all at once or slowly over time) will also cause the inner ear cells to decay. In those cases, they have noise-induced hearing loss.
Dr. Mark Hammel is a person who developed noise-induced hearing loss in his 20s, when he was exposed to excessive noise in the military. Decades later at 57 years old, Dr. Hammel chose to intervene in his hearing loss by choosing hearing aids. The results were life-changing.
Describing the bittersweet moment, Dr. Hammel says, “It was very joyful, but also very sad, when I contemplated how much I had missed all those years.”
Barriers to treatment
Why would someone wait so long to treat hearing loss? It’s not an unusual circumstance. The average person waits fifteen years before deciding to confront their hearing loss and choosing to invest in treatment.
The reasons for this vary. Some people are anxious about ‘appearing old’ and avoid hearing aids. For other people, they become used to having trouble listening and decide to live with it. Some people are young, like Dr. Hammel, but others in their later years have accepted hearing loss as part of the toll of aging.
And yet, today’s hearing aids or even cochlear implants for more profound hearing loss can radically enhance a person’s listening experience. Prior to treatment, Dr. Hammel spent decades tolerating poor hearing, saying “I could hear well enough sitting face to face with someone in a quiet room, but in public, with background noise, I knew people were talking, but I had no idea what they were saying. I just stood there nodding my head and smiling.”
Another tricky aspect of hearing loss is that some people are simply unaware that they have hearing loss at all. The symptoms of the issue early on are subtle. We lose frequencies first, so speech clarity is often challenging. You might find yourself asking people to repeat themselves often, assume that everyone is mumbling or rely overmuch on closed captioning.
The downside of untreated hearing loss
While you may choose to settle for a life of effortful and frustrating hearing, the costs can be enormous. Depression is reported by people with hearing loss much more frequently than in those with healthy hearing. Being cut off from communicating with people we love and even strangers on the street can bring with it a sense of isolation. Troubling focusing, sleep issue and fatigue are commonly associated with hearing loss.
Financially, people in the workplace who have hearing loss tend to make less money in salary. This happens because of problems like discrimination or even a lack of self-confidence in the person with hearing loss.
Why waiting to treat hearing loss doesn’t help
Choosing to suffer in silence with untreated hearing loss doesn’t serve anyone. In fact, it can harm your chances of recovering optimal hearing with hearing aids. It can prolong the period of adjustment, too.
When we lose the habit of listening, we are altering our brain function. The auditory pathways that exist for someone with healthy hearing begin to deteriorate when they are not used. Implementing hearing aids early on in the condition can actually make wearing hearing aids more effective now and for decades to come.