En español | About 48 million people in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss, but many of them struggle with acknowledging it. “People are often embarrassed or ashamed about losing their hearing, because they see it as a sign that they're old, so they ignore it and pretend it isn't happening,” says Alison Grimes, director of audiology at UCLA Health in Los Angeles.
They also might be worried about the cost of hearing aids, or the way the technology looks or functions. As a result, the average time it takes to seek help is seven years, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. But untreated hearing loss can be dangerous, even deadly. Here are nine truths that will help you drop the denial — or encourage a loved one to — so you can get the help you need.
1. Getting a hearing aid is as natural as wearing reading glasses
Chances are you already own a pair or two of fashionable readers and don't feel embarrassed about wearing them. Presbyopia, the age-related loss of the eye's ability to focus on nearby objects, is the visual version of presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, Grimes says. Hearing aids may not yet count as a trendy accessory, but they're far more discreet than the big beige bananas of old — and plenty of glamorous people rely on them, including Halle Berry, Jodie Foster, Robert Redford and Rob Lowe. That's a club most of us wouldn't mind joining.
2. Even mild hearing loss changes your brain
"The ear sends information to the brain, so when hearing begins to diminish, the brain changes, too,” says Anu Sharma, a professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For instance, as hearing wanes, the visual and sensory processing parts of the brain start using parts of the auditory cortex to understand sounds, a shift that results in less stimulation — and, as a result, deterioration — of the auditory cortex over time, according to research by Sharma and her colleagues.
3. Uncorrected hearing takes a toll on your memory and other cognitive abilities
When you're struggling to hear people talk in a crowded restaurant, say, your frontal and prefrontal cortexes — the parts of the brain that help you think, focus, concentrate and remember things for brief periods (known as working memory) — become more active. “Because you're using these parts of the brain to listen, you can't use them as effectively to understand the meaning of what's being said, so your comprehension declines,” Sharma says. Research has confirmed that those with hearing loss have deficits in the brain's processing speed and executive function, she adds — and has even linked hearing loss with dementia. But an international analysis published in 2017 in The Lancet called hearing loss one of the largest modifiable risks for developing dementia. “The idea that it's modifiable is hopeful,” Sharma says. “Our research has shown that a well-fitting hearing aid can turn cognitive problems around.”
4. It's safer to be able to hear well
People with hearing loss may not hear smoke alarms or doorbells or sirens that signal severe weather, says Jackie Clark, a clinical professor at the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas in Dallas, and past president of the American Academy of Audiology. “One of my patients didn't hear a man who broke into her home and knocked over a dish hutch,” Clark says. “She was unharmed physically, but the realization that she wasn't aware of her surroundings took an emotional toll and prompted her to get hearing aids.” What's more, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute on Aging found that people with mild hearing loss are three times as likely to fall as people with normal hearing.
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5. Straining to hear is stressful
"Even minimal hearing loss can increase stress, and that can cause all sorts of stress-related problems, from muscle tension, headaches and fatigue to anxiety, frustration, anger, irritability and depression,” says Angela Shoup, a professor of otolaryngology and chief of the division of communicative and vestibular disorders at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
6. It takes a toll on your social life, too
When hearing is a challenge, it's exhausting to try to follow conversations. “It requires a lot more concentration, and that leads to fatigue,” Sharma says. Over time, that level of effort can become daunting and decrease the joy you take in spending time with people you love.
7. Think of caring for your hearing as part of an overall healthy lifestyle
"In a perfect world we eat healthy food, stay physically active and get routine cancer screening tests because we know those things are good for us,” Grimes says. Getting your hearing checked and hearing loss treated is an indispensable part of that stay-well approach.
8. Hearing aids are better than ever
There are “invisible” hearing aids that are placed in your ear canal or behind your ear, and digital signal processing allows audiologists to adjust hearing aids to suit your needs. And as soon as the Food and Drug Administration implements legislation that passed in 2017, less expensive hearing aids, with the same technology as prescription devices, will be available over the counter (although getting hearing aids through an audiologist may still offer more customization).
9. It's virtually impossible to hide hearing loss
If you're constantly asking people to speak up or repeat themselves, they're going to know what's up. It's reassuring to know that you can protect yourself from problems associated with hearing loss and use the technology that's available to help you overcome it.
Ginny Graves is a contributing writer who specializes in psychology, science and health. She is the author of a number of books, including, with Carol Novello, Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too.