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Should We Scare People Into Wearing Hearing Aids?

Maybe stressing the fears of dementia and depression isn't the way to go

En español | Like many others, I've written repeatedly about the negative health consequences of hearing loss. These include a greater risk of falls, depression and isolation, and earlier and more severe cognitive decline. A recent study even linked hearing loss to earlier death.

I write about these in part because they are news, the results of solid epidemiological studies. But I also write about them to encourage people to treat their hearing loss.

It's a way of getting people to face facts. But is it also a scare tactic? Partly.

Senior man wearing hearing aid, close up

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Treating hearing loss can encourage socialization and thus help fend off depression and isolation.

Is it working? Hearing aid sales seem to be on the rise , but overall numbers remain low, and some say stressing the scary consequences of untreated hearing loss is not the best tactic.

Recently, Julie Olson, a past president of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), addressed this question in comments to the Ida Institute, a think tank on issues about hearing loss. These recent studies on dementia, falling and now death, she wrote, "add to the stigma problem. They frighten people into further denial of the problem and prevent many from seeking help."

She wishes there were more emphasis on the "success stories" of how hearing devices improved a person's life.

I wish that I could say that cognitive decline and falls are the direct consequences of untreated hearing loss, and that treating the loss would help prevent them, but more research is needed.

A French study last year found a correlation between the use of hearing aids and reduced cognitive decline. An earlier French study found a reversal of cognitive decline in people with cochlear implants who also received intensive rehabilitative therapy. But these were relatively small studies. Further research — such as a proposed large study to be led by hearing expert Frank Lin, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University — may tell us more.

Common sense tells us that treating hearing loss will encourage socialization and thus help fend off depression and isolation. Depression and isolation are known risk factors for cognitive decline. It also makes sense that hearing more easily and clearly (with hearing aids) will ease the cognitive load that comes with expending disproportionate effort to hear. As for balance, better hearing may allow us to take in our surroundings more easily and avoid falling. Physical fitness and balance training may help, too.

Jan Blustein, M.D., professor of health policy and medicine at New York University, and a fellow board member of HLAA, said to me, "As a person with hearing loss, I understand concerns about stigma." But, she added, "It's complicated. Much of the evidence on hearing loss and cognitive decline is correlational — so we don't know whether the hearing loss causes the problem [falls, hospitalizations, faster cognitive decline], or whether other factors are at play. We're working toward better knowledge about the consequences of treated versus untreated hearing loss."

Whether treating loss helps offset these conditions is the big question, of course. But there are much better and more immediate reasons to treat your hearing loss.

I wear a hearing aid not because I'm worried about possible dementia in the future but so I can hear better right now.

I wear a hearing aid so that I can understand what people say to me, so that I can hear birds chirping and leaves rustling, so that I can ask for directions and understand the answer.

I also wear a hearing aid so that I can continue to be an active, involved member of my family, my social groups, the world. If wearing a hearing aid helps offset dementia, all the better. But I wear one for the benefits I get right now, every day.