Huh...what was that?
Overlooked consequences of hearing loss
It’s just your little secret… hearing loss. No one else suspects or notices it… you’re doing a great job faking it…it’s not hurting anything. So you can just ignore it… it’s just a hearing loss. Wrong!
Hearing loss has a direct impact on your quality of life, from holding a conversation with your granddaughter, listening to your favorite song on the radio, or simply hearing the birds while you’re pulling weeds in your garden.
Yet hearing loss is one of the most overlooked aspects of people’s health. One-third of Americans haven’t had their hearing tested in over ten years. And only thirteen percent of physicians routinely screen for hearing loss.
This is alarming because hearing loss is our third most prevalent health condition, affecting nearly 33 million Americans. That number is predicted to grow to 36 million Americans by 2015, largely because members of the Baby Boomer generation are losing their hearing at a more rapid pace than previous generations.
Your “little secret” is not only your own because untreated hearing loss can affect your quality of life, your interpersonal relationships, and even your earning power. In the words of Dr. James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging (NCOA), “untreated hearing loss is not a benign condition…”
Experts agree that untreated hearing loss yields an array of social, psychological, and emotional problems. These include embarrassment, fatigue, irritability, tension and stress, avoidance of social activities, withdrawal from social situations, depression, negativism, rejection by others, danger to personal safety, health, loneliness, less alertness to the environment, impaired memory, less adaptability to learning new tasks, paranoia, lessened ability to cope, and reduced overall psychological health.
Thus, hearing loss is associated with physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being. These issues may not be just quality of life issues. For many people, uncorrected loss of hearing is a serious health issue, if not a life or death issue.
Audiologists believe that the Baby Boomers have encountered more noise pollution than any other generation before them. Baby Boomers are the first generation of rock and roll, and they attended concerts, bought stereo equipment, and rode motorcycles. Their active lifestyle lends itself to experiencing an increased amount of noise.
Communication is at the heart of interactions, including good medical care. Consider this true story: …“A few years ago my grandmother had a stroke and was taken to the hospital. The healthcare professionals told the doctor that she was unresponsive. With this information, and because of her advanced age, the doctor recommended to the family that a feeding tube not be inserted- that we should just ‘let her go peacefully’. But the truth was she was unresponsive because just couldn’t hear what anyone was asking her. She had a significant hearing loss the healthcare professionals didn’t know about so they didn’t try to communicate more effectively with her. Sure, the stroke damaged some of her communication facilities, and she probably would have had some difficulty communicating- but she was fully cognizant. She just couldn’t understand the rapid speech of the ER personnel…”
Hearing and quality of life
Studies prove that treatment of hearing loss, specifically using hearing aids, improves a person’s quality of life. One large-scale study, conducted in 2000 by the National Council on Aging, found that treatment of hearing loss with hearing aids significantly improved these quality of life issues in nearly every area measured.
In the NCOA study, both the respondents and their family members were asked independently to rate the extent to which they believe their lives were improved specifically due to hearing instruments. The findings indicate that hearing aids are clearly associated with impressive improvements in the social, emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of people with hearing loss, from mild to serious hearing impairments. Additionally, family members and friends are more likely to notice these benefits than the actual users themselves.
One surprising finding was that the use of quality hearing aids most significantly improved interpersonal relationships for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. These benefits include improved relationships at home, relationships with children and grandchildren, improved one’s social life and even improved one’s sex life. After all, hearing loss intimately affects one’s ability to communicate.
Hearing loss knows no socioeconomic or age boundaries, and often goes undetected by the person with the hearing problem. It’s often your family, friends, and your co-workers who become aware of the problem first. Why? Because hearing loss has these four characteristics—it’s painless, invisible, gradual, and partial.
There is no physical pain associated with the most common types of hearing loss. However, tinnitus (head or ear noise) may be an early warning sign. This symptom is often associated with damage to the hearing nerve.
People with hearing loss do not look any different. It is an invisible handicap because the most common types of hearing loss are due to changes in the delicate inner or middle ear, which are located inside our heads.
Loss of hearing is often so gradual that you don’t readily notice the change. Just a couple of decibels of loss of sensitivity are not detectible, yet the loss is cumulative over time.
In most cases, only certain sounds are affected. Your ability to hear loud sounds may still be okay, while you can’t hear soft sounds. On the other hand, you may still have normal sensitivity to hear low-pitched sounds like an engine roaring, but not for high-pitched sounds like your girlfriend’s voice. Some sounds might seem too loud, while speech might be unclear. This partial loss of hearing is the most difficult to detect.
Another surprising fact is that untreated hearing loss can also affect your pocketbook! Survey data from the Better Hearing Institute suggests that in 2007 untreated hearing loss accounts for over $100 billion in lost income every year.
The Better Hearing Institute’s MarketTrak survey of more than 40,000 households revealed that if you have a hearing loss, hearing aids may help you land a job. Additionally if you have hearing loss and a job, you can earn an average of up to $12,000 more annually if you wear hearing aids.
The conclusions of this landmark study support “the fact that hearing is a critical sense for effective communication in the workplace. Verbal communication is required in most employment situations, whether the employee is actively engaged in sales or merely communicating with their co-workers in doing day-to-day tasks. Effective hearing can also be critical to assure job safety. This landmark study concluded that without aided hearing, a hearing impaired individual can be expected to suffer losses in compensation due to underemployment, may make mistakes on the job, experience higher rates of unemployment and in general may experience an overall reduction in quality of life. These quality of life issues which may negatively affect job performance include social isolation, social paranoia, emotional stability, anxiety, depression, medical health, and cognitive functioning.”
The BHI study did not include the social or emotional costs of the effects on family and friends. But according to BHI Director Sergei Kochkin, Ph.D., the use of hearing aids was shown to mitigate that loss in income by fifty percent.
In fact, hearing loss may have led to the creation of the Internet. Doctor Vinton Cerf, widely known as one of the Fathers of the Internet, suffered from sensorineural hearing loss and was fit with his first hearing aids at age 13. , Dr. Cerf, states, “In creating the Internet with my colleagues in part I wanted to help people with hearing loss as well as other communication difficulties.” He found that text communication, like the Internet and email, augmented verbal communication like telephone calls. Use of the normal telephone is a challenge for many people with hearing loss who rely on visual cues like lip-reading, facial expressions, and gestures to understand the spoken word.
Early detection is key
As with many other health conditions, early detection and treatment allow for intervention that is more effective. In some cases (5% of adults), hearing loss is medically treatable and may be improved. In cases where the hearing loss is permanent (95% of adults), hearing aids are a form of treatment that allows for compensation of the hearing loss. Many people who have hearing loss also suffer from tinnitus, a symptom that causes noticeable noises in the head or ears often described as ringing, buzzing or cricket-like sounds. Wearing hearing aids can also minimize or even eliminate the tinnitus for most people.
Early detection and treatment also offer a means of support for both the person with the hearing impairment and his or her family with the social and mental burdens often associated with hearing loss. A considerable part of an audiologist’s work is counseling, listening to the patient’s account of their communication difficulties and offering advice and treatment options to specifically address their situation. Many audiologists recommend that a family member or trusted friend accompany you to your visit to the audiologist. They can support you and even act as a second set of ears when your audiologist offers professional guidance.
Fortunately, hearing aid technology has come a long way from the bulky device your grandfather wore! The majority of hearing aids utilize digital technology. Their microscopic processing chips work to amplify the sounds you are missing, blend them with the other sounds you hear naturally, and provide you with all around clearer hearing. Their ergonomic designs are often so discreet and comfortable that many are approaching “invisibility” on the wearer. Your untreated hearing loss is usually far more obvious than your hearing aids!
The philosopher Voltaire wrote, “The ear is the road to the heart.” Don’t let undiagnosed hearing loss affect the way you live your life. Prevent hearing loss by protecting yourself from noise. If you suspect a hearing problem, seek the services of a caring audiologist.
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"Huh...what was that?
Overlooked consequences of hearing loss"
Dr. Suzanne O’Connor graduated from Indiana University with a master’s degree in Audiology. She expanded her knowledge in a changing profession by earning her professional doctorate degree from the Arizona School of Health Sciences in 2002. She heads...