How hearing loss affects seniors
Imagine being cut off from communication with your loved ones. Conversations happen around you but you can’t really participate, at least not like you used to. It becomes easier to just stay home than to try to go to a party or a noisy restaurant, because it is too frustrating to try and hear what your friends are saying.
That is the unfortunate reality of hearing loss for many seniors every day. About 25 percent of those age 65 to 74 have significant hearing loss, and for those 75 and older the number reaches 50 percent. Surprisingly, the majority of those with hearing loss don’t use hearing aids; as a matter of fact, studies show that fewer than one out of three people over the age of 70 who need hearing aids has actually used them. The problem is that unlike any other sensory deficit, hearing loss cuts those who are affected off from other people. And the emotional toll alone is devastating, let alone the toll on physical and social health. Problems that stem from hearing loss in the elderly include:
- Withdrawal from social life
- Decreased personal safety
- Cognitive decline
- Poor health
Seniors with untreated hearing loss report a lower quality of life than those without hearing loss or those whose hearing loss has been treated with hearing aids. The emotional factors involved are a significant part of the problem. To begin with, hearing loss adds to the perception that an older person is “slow” or losing their faculties, which is usually not the case. This negative perception from others can then lead to a negative self-perception, which in turn leads to lower self-esteem, frustration and even depression.
The depression, anger and frustration of hearing loss do not operate in a vacuum, however. All aspects of life are affected by these negative emotions. Those who are experiencing age-related hearing loss quite often find that their family relationships suffer due to their inability to hear adequately or fully participate in conversations. A person with hearing loss might be irritable, and lash out at their loved ones out of frustration. Blaming others for mumbling or speaking too softly is common for those with age related hearing loss, as are arguments over the volume of the TV or radio .Another common source of tension is one spouse’s refusal to go to parties and social events because he is embarrassed about his hearing loss, and frustrated that he misses most of the conversations.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life, but for seniors with hearing loss it becomes an extra challenge. An elderly person with a spouse in the hospital, for example, is already under a lot of stress, but imagine if that senior is having difficulty hearing the doctor’s words about his medical condition or necessary follow up care. Financial matters, travel or even matters of personal safety, challenging even for those of us with typical hearing, can be even more scary and confusing if an older person is unable to hear clearly.
Another unique problem faced by older people with hearing loss is that culturally, hearing loss is often written off as just a normal part of aging. True, age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is slow to progress; but because of its slow progression, seniors, their family members and their doctors are often slower to acknowledge hearing loss, and do not take it seriously. And even those who eventually do seek treatment are not in any hurry; the average amount of time between noticing hearing loss and seeking treatment is 10 years. Regular medical care isn’t helpful either; surveys show that only 14 percent of doctors make hearing loss screening a regular part of a physical exam. All of this adds up to an epidemic of untreated hearing loss for seniors.
Hearing loss can also take a toll on the physical health of the elderly, whether in the form of diminished personal safety, disease or falls. Those with hearing loss might have difficulty hearing an alarm or a siren, or might not hear someone shouting a warning. They might not hear a doctor’s instructions regarding medication, or other vital medical information. And studies have shown due to balance issues, those with untreated hearing loss are 3 times more likely to suffer falls than those without.
Healthwise, the social isolation that often accompanies hearing loss can also be detrimental. Those who are socially isolated are less likely to exercise and more likely to drink, smoke and have an unhealthy diet. These in turn lead to poor physical health in the form of conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. And social isolation due to hearing loss has also been linked to higher rates of cognitive decline in the elderly due to brain atrophy that accompanies a lack of use of the “hearing centers” of the brain.
In short, hearing loss affects every aspect of life for seniors, from physical well-being to emotional health and family relationships. Fortunately the solution may lie in just one call to a hearing healthcare professional; seeking treatment for their hearing loss can help older people re-engage in life once again.