En español | One of the dangerous side effects of hearing loss is isolation. You have trouble hearing in social gatherings, so you tend to stay home. Isolation can lead to depression, and depression is connected with cognitive decline. Cognitive decline can end up being dementia.
You can't cure hearing loss, but you can treat it. The most direct way is with hearing aids, but sometimes hearing aids aren't enough to make socializing easy, and so the threat of isolation, depression, cognitive decline and dementia is still there.
Here's another way to treat hearing loss: Get a dog! I don't mean a service dog — though they can be very useful for people with hearing loss. I mean a pet.
I've always liked long walks, and for years I distracted myself over three- or four-mile jaunts with recorded books. I listened to everything from Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina to novels by Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard.
But then I went deaf. Or, more accurately, deafer. I no longer could hear with headphones. I had sometimes walked with friends, but around the same time they dropped away for one reason or another — maybe my hearing loss. I was often left walking with my thoughts. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I'd even take a notepad along in case I thought of something particularly brilliant.
But thinking — brilliant thoughts or not — was not enough to get me out day after day. So I got a dog, a puppy. At first I was out four or five or six times a day, for short puppy-relief walks. As he got older, we resumed my long morning walk. I still had plenty of thinking time, but now I had a reason to keep on going, back up to my three or four miles. I could rarely persuade my energetic puppy to turn around before the 1.5-mile mark.
A puppy prompts conversations with strangers, and soon I had new friends, whom I knew mostly by their dogs' names, and a slew of casual acquaintances. It's easy for me to hear in the open air, and I began having conversations at the dog park, or sometimes stopping for a chat mid-walk. We would talk about dogs at first, but as time went on, some of my dog friends became real friends, and then we talked about everything.
Plus, a pet has other health benefits. It can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and — thanks to its boundless, unconditional love — help reduce your stress. Also, dog owners get more exercise than non-pet owners, and the physical activity helps older dog walkers have greater mobility inside their homes than others, according to studies funded by the National Institutes of Health.
I do admit that I miss listening to recorded books, but on the other hand, walks with my dog have helped me become much more aware of the sights around me — cherry trees in the spring, branches glittering with ice in the winter, a hawk soaring, a raccoon in the crook of a tree — and the sounds as well, including conversation.
A baby probably would have the same result — everyone talks to parents with babies — but I've had my babies, and my babies are not yet ready to have babies of their own. So for now I enjoy the benefits of a different kind of child — a furry, four-legged one.