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The common chronic health condition that often goes untreated

Contributed by | Friday, January 15th, 2016
An older couple sits on a bench at the museum
Hearing loss is one of the most common
physical conditions affecting older adults. 

"What?" "Can you repeat that?" "I didn’t hear you!" "My hearing is fine; it’s just that everyone around me mumbles."

Does any of this sound familiar? Odds are you probably know someone who is affected by hearing loss. Or perhaps you are the one having difficulty with your hearing. Hearing loss is one of the most the most common physical condition affecting older adults. As a matter of fact, hearing loss is the third most common health condition, behind only heart disease and arthritis, yet a hearing test is the least commonly requested test when it comes time for a physical. That’s right; most people are more likely to request a colonoscopy from their doctor than a hearing test.

More than 48 million adults in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss. And the likelihood increases as we age; one third of those over the age of 65 have hearing loss, and for those over the age of 75 that number is a staggering two thirds. Yet despite the significant risks to personal health and safety, hearing falls to the bottom of the list of health concerns.

Although hearing loss contributes to a number of health and safety factors, one of the biggest risks of untreated hearing loss is cognitive decline. The connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline has long been suspected, and indeed studies have shown an accelerated rate of cognitive decline in those who do not treat their hearing loss. A study done at Johns Hopkins in 2011 found that cognitive decline is significantly accelerated for people who have hearing loss and don’t use hearing aids. During the study, researchers discovered seniors with untreated hearing loss were “significantly more likely to develop dementia than those who retain their hearing”.

However, until recently it was not known whether the use of hearing aids could actually prevent cognitive decline for those with hearing loss. Now, the results of another study have changed how we view hearing loss as it relates to conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found the rate of cognitive decline in those with hearing aids and those without any hearing loss at all were the same. In other words, hearing aids DO make a difference to your long term cognitive health.

The problem is that less than 75 percent of people with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids actually use them. And most people with hearing loss wait an average of seven to 10 years before seeking treatment for their hearing loss, a significant amount of time when it comes to potentially declining cognitive health.

The connection between hearing and cognitive health is simple: you “listen” with your ears, but “hear” with your brain. The brain needs to work to make sense of the sounds that it hears, and if that portion of the brain is not utilized enough, it begins to weaken. Cognitive decline occurs when the parts of the brain that are necessary for higher level thinking abandon their duties in order to take over for the weakened parts of the brain. So those who struggle to hear are not only putting their cognitive health at risk due to the fact that they are overtaxing certain parts of the brain while allowing others to weaken, but in another crucial way as well: lack of socialization.

“Researchers agree that cognitive decline is likely related to the lack of social interaction that older adults have because of their hearing loss. The assumption has been that if people use hearing aids and thus become socially active again or are able to maintain an appropriate level of social activity then they would decrease their risk of a more rapid decline in cognitive skills. The new study appears to corroborate those assumptions,” said Doug Wesson, of the Wesson Hearing Aid Center in California.

Others agree. “This is the first time there is evidence that people who have hearing loss, but use hearing aids are no more at risk of cognitive decline than people with normal hearing. The hearing aids act as a protective mechanism against a more accelerated loss of cognition, so that cements the hypothesis that the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline is related to loss of socialization,” said Don Schum, the Vice President for Audiology & Professional Relations for Oticon, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors of the Eriksholm Research Center. “Since hearing aids allow for greater socialization, allowing people to stay engaged and active, people with hearing devices are using the cognitive system very actively.”

Fortunately, a new generation of hearing aids is taking the brain’s crucial role in hearing into account. Oticon’s Alta2 with BrainHearing technology, for example, was developed to be adaptable to each individual user and their unique hearing needs. The technology is designed to work in conjunction with the brain, and this support not only allows for an easier listening experience but provides up to a 20 percent improvement in understanding soft speech. The end result is that Oticon’s BrainHearing technology provides the tools the user needs in order to prevent cognitive decline as a result of hearing loss: a less taxing listening experience and the opportunity to remain socially active and engaged in life.

Cognitive decline and hearing loss don’t have to go hand in hand. If you think you might have hearing loss, don’t wait to schedule an appointment with a hearing care professional.

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