They are sobering statistics. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) age is the strongest predictor of hearing loss among adults aged 20-69, with the greatest amount of hearing loss in the 60 to 69 age group. And nearly 25 percent of adults in America aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.
According to Healthy Hearing—an online information source on hearing loss and hearing aids—though some 28.8 million Americans could benefit from wearing hearing aids, fewer than 16% have ever used them. And of those age 70 and older who could benefit from wearing hearing aids, fewer than 30 percent have ever used them.
In fact, Healthy Hearing reports that most people wait 15 years from the time they know they have hearing loss until they actually purchase their first hearing aids, and the average age of first-time hearing aid wearers is 70.
Older adults often site price as the barrier to purchasing hearing aids which can range from $1,000 to $4,000 per device (per ear) depending upon the level of technology they contain, Healthy Hearing reports. But the impact of untreated hearing loss could be much greater. Studies have shown again and again that failing to treat hearing loss has negative physical, mental and social consequences and can lead to depression, loneliness and social isolation as well as have multiple effects on personal and family relationships.
Hearing loss has been named as a contributor to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and disorders such as depression. Healthy Hearing reports “mild to moderate untreated hearing loss leads to cognitive decline and may be an early indicator for Alzheimer’s disease.” And “individuals with untreated hearing loss are twice as likely to be depressed than those who have normal hearing or those who wear hearing devices.”
And it can go both ways, apparently. Healthy Hearing goes on to say studies suggest that those with hypertension have a greater incidence of hearing loss than those without, and that hearing loss is twice as common in individuals who have diabetes than in those without.
A March 2019 article in The Hearing Review states that “using hearing aids contributes to better health, higher income, and better family and social life—and has a huge positive effect on Gross National Product.” Journalist Kim Ruberg reviewed the overall conclusions of a large scientific study—”Hearing Loss–Numbers and Costs”—about the consequences of hearing loss.
The meta study analyzed and compared hundreds of scientific studies and papers in the last two decades about the prevalence and the consequences of hearing loss and the use and benefits of hearing aids. “The report clearly documents that untreated hearing loss is a major health issue having a huge negative economic and social impact on our society,” Ruberg wrote. “It also documents that checking your hearing and treating hearing loss pays off—both for the individual and for society.”
Conducted for the non-profit organization Hear-it, the study found that 7% of all adults live with a disabling hearing loss, and more than 2 out of 3 of these people are not treated for it. Study authors Bridget Shield, PhD, and Professor Mark Atherton at Brunel University in London, estimate the costs of disabling hearing loss to $133 billion a year in the United States alone. Shield is a professor emerita and a retired professor of Acoustics at the School of The Built Environment and Architecture at London South Bank University. She compiled the first report for Hear-it AISBL—“Evaluation of the Social and Economic Costs of hearing Impairment”—in 2006.
The study found that hearing loss contributes to a $148 billion loss each year in the U.S., and lost productivity in society due to a higher unemployment among people with a disabling hearing loss costs another $62 billion. These costs don’t include increased healthcare costs due to untreated hearing loss.
“A recent study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, showed that for people with an untreated hearing loss, healthcare costs increase by 46%—or by $22,434 per person over a period of 10 years—compared to people without a hearing loss,” Ruberg reports.
Additionally, people with an untreated hearing loss experience lower quality of life. On average, the more severe the hearing loss, the greater the loss in quality of life, according to study authors. “In fact, the report suggests that hearing loss has more of an impact on quality of life than many other chronic conditions,” Ruberg reports, adding that, in addition to suffering more cognitive decline and dementia, people with untreated hearing loss are also more likely to have other chronic diseases than people with normal hearing.
“Research currently shows that people diagnosed with dementia have a higher prevalence of hearing loss, and the more severe the hearing loss, the greater the degree of dementia,” said Laurel Christensen, Ph.D., is the chief audiology officer at GN Hearing, a manufacturer and supplier of hearing instruments and diagnostic audiological instrumentation. “There is enough of an association that scientists are beginning to speculate and explore potential theories for this relationship and three possible theories have been identified.”
Those theories include:
1. Hearing loss leads to isolation (i.e., reduced cognitive stimulation), which has been shown to contribute to changes in cognition.
2. Hearing loss causes a need for additional cognitive resources to be directed to speech understanding, thereby siphoning off necessary energy from executive functions, such as working memory.
3. The same pathological processes that cause hearing loss may also cause dementia, for example: subtle changes in blood flow or alterations in protein expression.
“While the underlying cause is not completely known, there is enough of a relationship between hearing loss and dementia to warrant the monitoring of one’s hearing sensitivity, focus on hearing loss prevention, and pursue amplification when needed,” Chirstensen said. “Research has also shown that hearing loss and the rate of falling are related. One study has shown that those with only mild hearing loss were three times more likely to have a history of falling.”
Christensen said improving quality of life, maintaining important relationships and reducing social isolation and depression are all goals of using hearing aids.
But what seems to lead people to get them in the end is relationships. “Ultimately, the event that must occur for people to finally get a hearing aid is when they start missing important conversations in their lives. Whether it be their children or grandchildren speaking or what was said in an important business meeting, their quality of life is impacted.”
Hearing aids don’t have to be burdensome, Christensen said. “Today’s sleek, discreet, high-tech solutions can improve hearing and allow people to hear the things that matter most.”
She shared five things you might not know about hearing aids:
1. Hearing aids are advanced medical devices that enable users to hear in quiet and in more difficult hearing environments: Hearing aid technology has come a long way from the big, bulky devices of the past. Most hearing aids are now extremely cosmetic and nearly invisible when worn. Many hearing aid users can now wear hearing aids that are “open” in the ear canal eliminating the “head in the barrel effect” when the ear is plugged. These open fittings allow for more natural sound quality.
2. Connectivity and accessibility have improved: Hearing aids allow direct wireless streaming from mobile devices, televisions and small microphones that can be worn by a companion. Both iPhone and Android users can stream music or calls directly to their hearing aids. In addition to wireless streaming from the phone, this streaming is also available from the TV and companion microphones. Companion microphones, when worn in a noisy environment, provide the benefit of allowing for hearing of the companion’s voice in even the most difficult environments.
3. No more batteries: The tedious chore of changing small hearing aid batteries is a thing of the past. Now you can have hearing aids with rechargeable batteries and portable chargers, a great benefit to those with vision or dexterity limitations. Recharging at home is simple with most hearing aids. An overnight charge is all they typically need to be ready again in the morning without any risk of losing a charge throughout the day. Some chargers can both hold a charge for portable charging and can charge very fast providing 8 hours of use time after only 30 minutes in the charger.
4. Smartphone apps discreetly manage device functions, such as checking battery status and adjusting volume to using more advanced fine-tuning features that control speech focus, noise and wind filters. Some apps even offer a “find my hearing aid” feature.
5. Tech-enabled customer care is now available with some hearing aid companies. Working with a hearing care professional is essential in treating hearing loss and maximizing the benefits of hearing aids, but it doesn’t mean you have to spend time trekking back and forth to your audiologist’s office. Smart apps are often offered to enable users to connect directly with hearing care professionals. After submitting a request, users can adjust their hearing aids with a simple tap on their phones without an office visit.
So what about those “hearing aids” you can buy at the drugstore? Well, first of all Christensen said makers of these products are not allowed to advertise them as hearing aids for a reason. “In the United States, people currently use PSAPs, or Personal Sound Amplification Products,” she said. “There is an enormous difference between PSAPs and hearing aids. Hearing aids are FDA approved medical devices provided and serviced by a hearing care professional. PSAPs are not. In fact, these devices aren’t allowed to be advertised as a hearing aid, and don’t offer nearly the same sound quality, especially in noisy situations. They might amplify speech a little in a quiet environment, but they do not have the level of sophistication that hearing aids have today.”
Rosie Guagliardo has hereditary hearing loss which took her years to come to terms with. “During the earlier parts of my life, I really worked hard to keep my hearing loss to myself,” she said. “I often felt embarrassed having to frequently ask those around me to repeat themselves or mishearing conversations and found myself laughing at jokes that I couldn’t really hear. I didn’t want my competency to be questioned, and I found myself becoming isolated, because I lacked some confidence about what was being said.”
Through the years, though, as she began to open up more about her struggles with hearing loss, she said she realized something: “I might be missing out on enjoying my life and connecting with those who surrounded me. It took a few tough and significant life events to realize, but I finally decided I needed to do something differently. Now, I have become my own advocate and dug into the options on the market to better suit me and my lifestyle.”