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Hearing for your health in 2014

Hearing is important for connecting with the world around you, but it is also important for overall health and safety. People with untreated hearing loss face significant threats to their wellbeing. Here are some ways that the loss of or trouble with this vital sense can impact general health:

Physical health

When you can't hear well, your overall physical health is at risk. According to a 2012 joint study by doctors and researchers at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute of Aging, adults between the ages of 40 and 69 who had even a mild hearing loss of 25 decibels were about three times as likely as those with normal hearing to have a history of falling. Additionally, they found that for each 10-decibel increase in hearing loss, a person's likelihood of falling increased 1.4 fold.

Hearing loss can impact all facets of your healthAccording to Dr. Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist and the study's main author, the risk of falling has a lot to do with the increased cognitive load placed on the brain when one struggles to hear well:

"Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding," Lin said. "If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait."

Additionally, people with untreated hearing loss might be less likely to exercise due to fear of falling or other risks. For example, an avid biker, jogger or hiker who has a decline in hearing might be less likely to do these things for fear of not hearing an approaching car or other dangers related to the activities. 

Of course, exercise is very important for physical health - not getting enough can lead to weight gain and chronic issues like diabetes. Also, it is important for supporting the joints and strengthening the bones, especially in older adults.

Emotional health

Untreated hearing loss can lead to social isolation, which is detrimental to overall health and wellbeing. For example, a 1999 nationwide survey of 4,000 adults by the National Council on Aging found significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression and other psychosocial disorders among adults who had untreated hearing loss, compared to other adults.

Why is this the case? Many people with progressive hearing loss feel embarrassed when they have to ask friends and family members to repeat certain bits of conversation - sometimes several times over. This might cause them to avoid answering the phone, going to dinner with friends or any other activities that can leave them feeling vulnerable to missing the joke or not hearing the question.

Hearing-impaired individuals are not the only ones emotionally affected by hearing loss. The previous study found that spouses of people with untreated hearing loss also had higher rates of depression and anxiety because of its affect on these relationships. On the bright side, the study also found that hearing aid use improved quality of life for both the hard of hearing and their significant others.

Even more troubling, a 2011 study by Dr. Lin and other researchers found that untreated hearing loss is correlated with dementia. Though they are not sure of the exact mechanisms, the researchers hypothesize that people's brains become overwhelmed by the strain of struggling to hear over the years, which affects them cognitively. Additionally, as social isolation is also linked to dementia, isolation caused by hearing loss could be a factor.

Lin points out that it can be easy for people to put off treatment for hearing loss, "A lot of people ignore hearing loss because it's such a slow and insidious process as we age," he said. "Even if people feel as if they are not affected, we're showing that it may well be a more serious problem ."

If you or someone you love has untreated hearing loss - even if it's mild - encourage that person to visit an audiologist to find out what steps you can take toward better hearing and overall health.

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