The Hidden Risks of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is frustrating for those who have it and for their loved ones. But recent research from Johns Hopkins reveals that it also is linked with walking problems, falls and even dementia.
In a study that tracked adults for nearly 12 years, Johns Hopkins expert Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D, and his colleagues found:
- Mild Hearing Loss Doubled the Risk for Dementia
- Moderate Hearing Loss Tripled That Risk
- Severe Hearing Loss is Five Times More Likely
THE LINKS BETWEEN HEARING AND HEALTH
“Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,” Lin says. “Hearing loss also contributes to social isolation. You may not want to be with people as much, and when you are you may not engage in conversation as much. These factors may contribute to dementia.”
As you walk, your ears pick up subtle cues that help with balance. Hearing loss mutes these important signals, Lin notes. “It also makes your brain work harder just to process sound. This subconscious multitasking may interfere with some of the mental processing needed to walk safely.”
Can hearing aids reduce these risks? Lin hopes to find out in a new study, still in the planning stages. “These studies have never been done before,” he notes. “What we do know is that there’s no downside to using hearing aids. They help most people who try them. And in those people, they can make all the difference in the world—allowing people to reengage with friends and family and to be more involved again.”
Although nearly 27 million Americans age 50 and older have hearing loss, only one in seven uses a hearing aid. If you think your hearing has diminished, it’s worth making an appointment with an audiologist for a hearing check, Lin says. If you have hearing loss, don’t let the following myths keep you from getting help.
“MY HEARING’S NOT THAT BAD.”
Hearing aid users wait, on average, 10 years before getting help for hearing loss. But during that time, communication with loved ones becomes more difficult, and isolation and health risks increase. “Our findings emphasized just how important it is to be proactive in addressing any hearing declines over time,” says Lin.
“WEARING HEARING AIDS MEANS I’M OLD, AND I’M NOT READY FOR THAT.”
It’s normal to feel worried that hearing loss means you’re aging—and to want to hide it. Plenty of people with a hearing impairment sit silently rather than joining in conversations and activities, because they fear that hearing problems will make them seem helpless or less than competent. The truth: Connecting with others can help your brain stay younger and keep you involved with life.
“I DON’T LIKE THE WAY HEARING AIDS LOOK.”
Forget the old days of big, whistling earpieces. Today’s hearing aids are smaller, more advanced (and less conspicuous) than ever before. Even celebrities (like former president Bill Clinton and football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary) are wearing them proudly and enjoy the benefits.
“I HEARD THAT HEARING AIDS ARE DIFFICULT TO USE.”
Usually patients adjust within a week or more, but there is a breaking-in period as you—and your central auditory system and brain—adjust to life with hearing aids. That’s why most doctors and hearing centers include a trial period, so you can be sure the type you’ve chosen—whether it’s a miniature behind-the-ear model or one that fits into your ear—is right for you.