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Hearing Health: Public Needs and Opportunities

The Intersection Between Hearing and Brain Health

spinner image Woman whispering in man's ear

American adults know hearing health is important but fail to fully understand the connection to brain health and few act to protect their hearing or have it tested, according to a recent AARP study.

An online nationally representative survey of adults 40 and older found that 71% would be extremely or very likely to take care of any current or future hearing issues with the knowledge that hearing loss increases the risk of dementia, cognitive decline, depression, falls, and social isolation.

The survey identified a knowledge gap in understanding the relationship between hearing loss and the cognitive and mental health risks, although there is at least some understanding of the connection. While more than half of adults are aware that hearing loss contributes, at least to some degree, to social isolation, depression, and cognitive decline, far fewer are aware hearing loss can contribute to fall risk and dementia.

Not only do we need to educate the public that hearing loss is a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia, we must also improve messaging about preventive care, the research revealed.

Annual physicals, vision tests and regular dental appointments are common among adults, but hearing tests and cognitive screenings are not. In the last five years, only 26% of adults ages 40-plus have had hearing tests and 10% report cognitive screenings. By comparison, 83% have had an annual physical.

Further, few adults take steps to protect their hearing from exposure to loud, prolonged noises. Most adults never protect their hearing during a sporting event (58%), an event featuring loud music (56%), or a concert (52%). Additionally, most rarely or never protect their hearing when using loud machinery or power tools.

Attitudes and Behaviors Related to Hearing

Overall, eight in 10 (81%) adults 40-plus feel that maintaining hearing health is important to their quality of life as they age but fewer than half (47%) feel that hearing health is an extremely or very important concern for them personally. This finding suggests that hearing health is something adults will worry about in the future, but not right now.

As expected, the percentage of adults who describe their hearing as excellent declines with age. While half (52%) of adults 40 to 49 say their hearing is excellent, just over one-quarter (28%) of adults 70-plus say the same thing. It turns out that among adults who report a hearing loss, most (69%) do not feel they need treatment.

When it’s time to address a hearing loss, several incentives were notable. Nearly eight in 10 (78%) adults 40-plus said they would be more likely to seek treatment for a hearing loss if it would improve the quality of their life or if it allowed them to maintain their independence (76%). A key barrier to addressing a hearing loss is the cost, including lack of insurance coverage.

Adults are aware that hearing aids can now be purchased over the counter, with one-third saying this makes them more likely to address any hearing concerns. Ease of use and cost were cited as the most important features for hearing aids.

Social Stigma and Health Conditions

Survey results examining possible stigma may suggest opportunity to address some of these issues. Difficulty hearing is not associated with getting old, the survey found. More than half of adults disagree that having difficulty hearing would be akin to admitting they are getting old. And people are not uncomfortable talking about or wearing hearing aids.

Specific survey questions asked adults 40-plus if they thought certain health conditions and the use of certain adaptive devices are judged negatively by society. These results were compared to a 2021 survey with the same question and overall, selected health-related conditions saw a notable decline in perceived stigma. The results of the 2023 survey showed that about one-quarter (27%) felt that society negatively judges people with a hearing impairment at least to some degree, a decrease from four in 10 (42%) in 2021. Fewer than one in five (18%) said society negatively judges the use of hearing aids (not asked in 2021).

The 2023 survey also noted a decline from 2021 in the perceived stigma associated with mental illness (78% vs. 68%),cognitive decline (62% vs. 47%), and Alzheimer's disease (56% vs. 41%).

BRAIN HEALTH THEN AND NOW: 2015 VS. 2023

Included in the 2023 AARP brain health and hearing survey were questions that were originally asked in the 2015 AARP brain health survey. This allowed for a comparison between 2015 and 2023 data for the same survey questions, among two different nationally representative samples of adults ages 40-plus.

Most of the responses to the repeated survey questions were the same or similar in 2023 compared to 2015. There were several notable differences, however. In 2023 compared to 2015; for example, adults ages 40 and older were less likely to rate their current brain health as excellent or very good and they showed a slightly greater concern that their brain health will decline in the future. Additionally, for two situations that would encourage someone to engage in brain-healthy activities, fewer adults in 2023 compared to 2015 said a major illness related to brain health would push them to undertake such activities, while fewer said they would be encouraged to pursue brain-healthy activities if their own memory was declining.

Methodology

The survey of 3,512 adults 40 and older was conducted between May 16 and 27, 2023 via Ipsos KnowledgePanel. The questionnaire took an average of 20.8 minutes. The data are weighted according to the 2022 March Supplement of the Current Population Survey (CPS).

For more information, please contact Laura Mehegan at lmehegan@aarp.org. For media inquiries, please contact External Relations at media@aarp.org.

Suggested citations:

Mehegan, Laura. The Intersection Between Hearing and Brain Health: Survey of Adults Ages 40-Plus. Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2023. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00717.001

 

Raimondi, Alessandra. Social Stigma and Health Conditions: A Survey Among Adults 40+. Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2023. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00717.003

 

Mehegan, Laura. Attitudes and Behaviors Related to Hearing. Washington, DC: AARP Research, September 2023. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00717.004

 

Mehegan, Laura. It Takes Time for People to Address a Hearing Issue. Washington, DC: AARP Research, October 2023. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00717.005

 

Mehegan, Laura. Brain Health Then and Now: Adults Ages 40-Plus. Washington, DC: Research, January 2024. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00717.006