As an Invisible Disability, Hearing Loss Often Goes Ignored

As an Invisible Disability, Hearing Loss Often Goes Ignored     

In hearing health, hearing loss by Laurie Duffy, M.S.

Hearing loss affects a vast swath of the population – over 40 million Americans live with significant hearing loss and it is the third most common chronic health condition in the country. Despite its prevalence, hearing loss is drastically under-treated with only 20% of those with hearing loss using treatments like hearing aids to manage their disability. 

People often ignore changes to their hearing, on average waiting seven years between when they first notice hearing issues and getting a hearing exam. In that time, slow progressive damage to hearing can compound and be harder to treat than hearing loss caught early. Untreated hearing loss can also take an unrecognized toll on your quality of life and your relationships.

Why Is Hearing Loss Under-Treated

Many factors play into why people don’t seek help for their hearing issues. Hearing problems aren’t usually physically painful, so they don’t carry the same urgency as a sharp toothache or chest pain might to seek help. Additionally, hearing loss often happens gradually, allowing a person to “normalize” their hearing issue rather than pursuing a hearing test. Sadly, ignoring the initial signs of hearing loss means missing out on the easiest and most effective stage to treat hearing loss at. 

People also cite a feeling that hearing issues carry with them a stigma of aging or “feeling old”. While human hearing does become more delicate and risk of hearing loss does increase as we age, hearing loss occurs across age demographics and is increasingly skewing younger. Regardless of your age, failing to treat hearing loss exposes you to increased risk for a number of other health conditions. 

The hidden costs of hearing loss are seldom recognized and taken into account when people consider seeking treatment for a hearing issue. Many people living with untreated hearing loss rationalize that their hearing issues “don’t affect anyone else”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hearing loss taxes our ability to communicate and limits our comprehension of others. Untreated hearing loss can strain your relationships with friends and family, coworkers, classmates, and housemates. Partners of people with untreated hearing loss often see the strain hearing loss puts on a relationship before the person with hearing loss recognizes the impact. 

Quality of Life

A greatly underestimated toll that untreated hearing loss extracts is a downgraded quality of life. Unaddressed hearing loss makes once-loved activities less enjoyable and can make unfamiliar places and events frustrating or difficult. Untreated hearing loss has been shown to contribute to restricted mobility and increases a person’s risk of suffering anxiety, depression or social isolation. Workers with untreated hearing loss earn significantly less, on average, than their peers with healthy hearing. 

Still, many people can’t see the connection between changes in their social patterns, travel and mental health as being related to their hearing challenges. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make these issues go away, in fact, many can worsen alongside worsening hearing loss. 

Physical Toll

Hearing loss may not be physically painful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harming the body. Unaddressed hearing issues make a huge impact on cognitive performance. As the brain races to compensate for hearing loss it pulls mental resources away from other tasks. Functions like balance and coordination can be compromised leading to more accidents. 

As the brain reorganizes itself around hearing loss, it disrupts familiar pathways and patterns which may be part of the established link between untreated hearing loss and increased risk of dementia. Dementia patients with hearing loss who were given hearing aids showed a remarkable increase in their cognitive organization and performance, also indicating that untreated hearing loss can contribute to how dementia manifests.

Finding Solutions

Many people are discouraged when they learn that most hearing loss cannot be restored or reversed. While this is still the case, hearing loss can be treated effectively with hearing aids. Using hearing aids enriches hearing, improves quality of life and minimizes health risks. 

Seeing a hearing specialist and seeking treatment for your hearing issues is an important first step. While most stages and severities of hearing loss can be treated, the earlier hearing loss is addressed, the better. Early treatment reduces the impact hearing loss has on your life and for those around you and makes it easier to adapt to assistive technology like hearing aids