When is hearing loss not just about hearing?
Although it sounds like the beginning of a riddle, the truth is hearing loss affects you in many ways beyond just having to turn up the volume on the TV or asking someone to repeat something they just said. Hearing loss is connected to your overall health and well-being in ways you might not realize.
Hearing loss is a hidden disability; while not obvious to the outside observer, it often manifests itself in myriad psychological, emotional and physical health problems. And since hearing loss is usually gradual and progressive, worsening over time, it tends to be minimized or ignored by those who have it. Unfortunately, the average time that elapses prior to seeking treatment is seven to ten years.
These top five health risks associated with hearing loss are important reasons to take your hearing health seriously in 2016:
1. Mental health
To begin with, many individuals with untreated hearing loss experience feelings of embarrassment and frustration. A person who can’t hear well might stop going to parties, socializing with friends or participating in hobbies or activities that they used to enjoy. That social isolation can then lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
But loneliness and depression aren’t the only psychological or emotional issues to result from hearing loss. Irritability and anger are common, resulting from the inability to hear what others are saying. Fatigue is common as well; it can be exhausting trying to keep up with conversation if you can’t hear a good portion of what is being said. The bottom line is the numerous emotional and psychological issues associated with untreated hearing loss can lead to compromised emotional health. But it doesn’t stop there; poor emotional health resulting from untreated hearing loss can lead to stress, which can then lead to a decline in physical health.
2. Heart conditions
The vestibular system and the cardiovascular system are inexorably linked. As such, hearing loss has been linked to an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease.
According to Charles E. Bishop, AuD, an assistant professor in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Sciences, the ear is actually a window to the heart. A healthy cardiovascular system means that there is adequate blood flow to the blood vessels of the inner ears; conversely, a poorly functioning cardiovascular system reduces blood flow to the inner ear, causing trauma to the blood vessels and leading to hearing loss.
“Hearing health should not be assessed in a vacuum,” says Bishop. “There is simply too much evidence that hearing loss is related to cardiovascular disease and other health conditions. It’s time we maximized the information we have in order to benefit the individual’s overall well being.”
So experts such as Bishop have established that cardiovascular issues can lead to hearing loss, can hearing loss lead to cardiovascular issues? Well, indirectly, the answer is yes. Indisputably, hearing loss causes stress. Stress leads to a process in the body known as vasoconstriction, or reduced blood flow and oxygen to vital organs including the heart. In addition, stress increases heart rate, damages blood vessels and raises blood pressure, all of which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
3. Cognitive decline
A recent study out of the University of Colorado looked at the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, specifically dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found in individuals with hearing loss, the brain’s ability to process sound is significantly compromised. That decline in ability to process sound then results in a reduced ability to understand speech. Even with mild hearing loss, the hearing areas of the brain atrophy, or become weaker. What happens next is the stronger areas of the brain, already necessary for higher level thinking, step in to compensate for the weaker areas. When these stronger areas of the brain are otherwise occupied, they are unavailable to do their primary job.
Hearing loss must be taken seriously, especially when it comes to dementia, because the brain begins to re-organize itself from the earliest stages of hearing loss. Knowing this, the solution could be as simple as early hearing loss screening programs for adults. Getting ahead of the decline through early intervention with hearing aids could prevent long term cognitive issues down the road.
4. Personal safety
It is difficult enough to hear approaching cars, the beeps of a truck in reverse or the shouts of pedestrians and cyclists among the sounds of urban life. Add in hearing loss and you are engaging in risk every time you leave the house. It is vital to be able to hear what is going on around you when you are on the streets, whether as a driver, cyclist or pedestrian. Diminished hearing loss causes danger not only for you, but for those around you.
And what about in the home? Imagine the danger involved in being unable to hear the smoke alarm, or even a weather alert from the television telling you to take shelter. Unfortunately the high pitch of many alerting sounds makes them inaudible to those with hearing loss. In addition, someone with untreated hearing loss might inadvertently compromise the safety of someone else if they are unable to hear a cry for help.
5. Maintaining balance
Falls are the leading cause of death among the elderly, especially for those over the age of 65. Now, a recent study out of Johns Hopkins has determined that that even a mild hearing loss triples the risk of an accidental fall among the elderly. Although experts differ on the exact link between an increased risk of falls among those with hearing loss, one aspect is not debatable: that the hearing system is necessary to deliver the cues needed to walk safely. Whether falls result from too much brain capacity being used for hearing, leaving not enough energy left over for balance and walking safely, or whether hearing loss and a compromised vestibular system interferes with spatial awareness, the result is the same: a potentially dangerous fall.
Take action now!
So why wait 7 to 10 years? Make 2016 the year to take care of your hearing and your health. Schedule an appointment with a hearing healthcare provider and get treatment for your hearing loss. Your body, and your mind, will thank you for it.