Confronting hearing loss can be difficult – but leaving it unaddressed can prove to be far worse. Over 30 million Americans live with significant hearing loss, making it one of the most common chronic health issues facing us today. While most hearing loss cannot be reversed, it can be effectively treated minimizing the impact it makes on your life.
Hearing loss is currently vastly undertreated – only one in seven people with hearing loss regularly use hearing aids. Unfortunately, failing to treat hearing loss can make the condition and associated health risks far worse.
How Hearing Loss Develops
Part of why treating hearing loss is so important is due to the typical way it can worsen over time. Most permanent hearing loss occurs when tiny sensory “hair cells” in the inner ear are damaged. These important but fragile cells have no way to repair themselves and when they are injured they are taken out of commission, leaving you with a less acute sense of hearing. We begin life with thousands of hair cells in each ear, but over time damage to these cells accrues into hearing loss.
Hearing loss begins in the inner ear, but it affects your entire auditory system and even your cognitive patterns. Healthy hearing relies on pattern recognition and mental “shortcuts” to quickly glean the meaning from speech and sound. When hearing is impaired, the familiar mental pathways for hearing need to be reorganized. Untreated hearing loss will gradually warp the way your brain processes sound, overwriting your natural hearing patterns.
Hearing loss will also create increasing cognitive strain as it develops. Untreated hearing loss turns speech comprehension into a mental puzzle where the mind needs extra context clues to correctly parse the meaning of what is heard. As hearing loss worsens over time, the cognitive burden of hearing loss becomes greater and can make hearing slow, frustrating and physically exhausting.
Treating Hearing Loss Early
The best time to treat hearing loss is when hearing changes are first detected in the ear. Most permanent hearing loss is gradual, happening slowly over the course of your life and accelerating as you age. Taking early hearing changes seriously allows you to address hearing loss when it is most treatable.
Early treatment will often feel the most natural because it assists your hearing before cognitive changes can take root in the way your brain processes sound. Early treatment is the easiest way to adapt to a hearing device and can curtail the cognitive strain and mental repatterning that unaddressed hearing loss can induce. Treating hearing loss later in its development can still be effective but often takes an “adjustment period” of several weeks for the mind to re-learn how to hear.
A big part of catching hearing loss early, in its most treatable stage is through regular hearing exams. How often you should get your hearing tested depends on a variety of factors. It is important to get your hearing tested if you have noticed a change in the way you hear. Permanent hearing loss also becomes far more likely as you age so annual hearing exams are recommended for people over age 65. Before age 65 you should have a hearing exam at least once every three years to check for any developing issues. People with professions or pastimes that put them around loud noises should receive an annual hearing test, regardless of age.
Protecting Your Health
Treating hearing loss makes communication much easier, but it also goes much further than that in terms of protecting your health. As we’ve laid out here, treating hearing loss can reduce the cognitive impact hearing loss takes on the brain. Cognitive strain linked to untreated hearing loss has been correlated with an increased rate of dementia and cognitive decline. For those with untreated moderate to severe hearing loss the risk of cognitive disease goes up 500% compared to persons with normal hearing.
Conversely, treatment of hearing loss has been shown to improve cognitive performance, even among patients with dementia. By easing cognitive strain and increasing comprehension, treating hearing loss makes a big difference to your overall health and quality of life. Early treatment for hearing loss comes with the most preventative benefits, but treatment at any stage of hearing loss will make a difference in your life.