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Untreated Hearing Loss May Raise Risk of Other Health Issues  

New report finds an association with higher rates of dementia, depression and hospitalization

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Uncorrected hearing loss may raise the risk of mental and physical health problems and leads to higher hospitalization rates and health care costs, according to research published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The two-part report, based on an analysis of health data from more than 150,000 people 50 and older reporting age-related hearing loss and no evidence of hearing aid use, is a collaborative effort between Johns Hopkins University, AARP Services Inc., OptumLabs and University of California, San Francisco.

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The report found that untreated hearing loss is associated with a greater risk of depression, dementia, heart attack and falls. The data showed that over 10 years, untreated hearing loss was associated with a 52 percent greater risk of dementia, a 41 percent higher risk of depression and an almost 30 percent greater risk for falls when compared with those who had no hearing loss. 

There are an estimated 38 million Americans with hearing loss, including two-thirds of adults older than 70, but less than 20 percent use hearing aids. And people tend to wait on average of seven years from the time they start noticing hearing loss to the time they seek help, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.

“To me the message from this research is: Get your hearing tested,” says Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer for AARP Services Inc.

The report also shows that those with untreated hearing loss experienced 46 percent higher total health care costs ($22,434) and almost 50 percent more hospital stays, and had a 44 percent higher risk of being readmitted to the hospital within 30 days, compared to those without hearing loss over a 10-year period.

Yeh says, “It’s the first study of its kind that has come out to show the association of uncorrected hearing loss with higher health care costs, more hospitalization, longer hospital stays and more readmission.”

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“Those numbers are a big deal,” says Nicholas Reed, assistant professor of audiology at Johns Hopkins University and the lead author of the part of the report on hospitalizations. He surmises that, in addition to the previously noted health risks, the higher readmission rate and longer hospital stays “are very, very closely related to patient-provider communication issues.” A communication gap can lead to the patient having trouble following the treatment plan, for instance. “We don’t have the evidence that hearing aids would correct this” but “I think in our gut,” it makes sense that it would help.

One roadblock to correcting hearing loss is that Medicare does not cover hearing aids, which are expensive to pay for out-of-pocket: A pair of provider-prescribed hearing aids can cost more than $4,000. Yeh says the lack of Medicare coverage comes from the longtime, widely held assumption that hearing loss is a natural and unavoidable result of growing old “and you couldn’t do anything about it.” That’s not the case these days, she notes, with the advancements in testing and treatment. 

Reed agrees. “We used to treat hearing like it was sort of this benign thing, like, ‘Everybody gets hearing loss when they get older, no big deal,’” he says. “But I think this [research] is just more evidence that hearing is way more important than we ever thought it was.”

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