By John R. Simpson, M.D., F.A.C.S
Reduced hearing acuity is frustrating for people with hearing loss, as well as for those around them. In fact, a 2009 study showed that relationships are failing because of unmanaged hearing loss. The survey of 1,500 hearing-impaired people over 55 revealed that almost half (44 percent of people) said that relationships with their partner, friends, or family have suffered because they can’t hear properly.
Hearing loss isn’t just an ear issue; it’s a quality of life and health issue. Untreated hearing loss can have severe consequences. A decrease in hearing sensitivity is associated with diminished cognitive function, poorer mental health, and social withdrawal. A nationwide survey of 4,000 adults with hearing loss compiled by the National Council on Aging (Kochkin & Rogin, 2000) found significantly higher rates of psychosocial disorders including depression and anxiety in individuals with untreated hearing loss — those who were not wearing hearing aids.
A separate study at Johns Hopkins found that cognitive diminishment was 41 percent greater in seniors with hearing loss. The study identified a link between the degree of hearing loss and the risk of developing dementia. Individuals with mild hearing loss were twice as likely to develop dementia, those with moderate hearing loss were three times as likely, and those with severe hearing loss were five times as likely to develop dementia when compared to individuals with normal hearing.
Researchers and hearing care professionals have long understood the link between cognition and hearing acuity. When you are listening to someone speak your brain is processing the sound so that you can understand it. A listener with untreated hearing loss is trying to understand degraded speech signals therefore their brain has to work harder to process those sounds. While your brain is busy working to understand incoming speech signals other tasks like memory and comprehension can suffer.
Among the most popular approaches to outcomes assessment has been the attempt to measure a global outcome called “quality of life.” Quality of life is a concept that encompasses physical, social, psychological, and environmental aspects of an individual’s life. In the social and medical sciences, the concept has defied precise and distinct conceptualization (Rogerson, 1995), and operational definitions range from health economists’ quality-adjusted life years (QALY) to scores on disease-specific self-report questionnaires. In Rogerson’s conceptualization, environmental and health-related quality of life are each viewed as a sense of satisfaction and well-being that is multiply determined: by external factors and their characteristics and by the characteristics of the individuals themselves. Palmore and Luikart (1972), Flanagan (1978), and Bowling (1995) have taken an empirical approach to determining what is most important to adults in the general population. Their studies revealed similar factors, with health (both one’s own and that of significant others) high on the list and physical welfare/finances/standard of living also in the top five. Bowling reported that “relationships with family and relatives” was the most frequently mentioned and most frequently first-ranked item.
Given the impact of hearing loss on communication and interpersonal functioning and the importance of interpersonal relationships in determining quality of life, it is not surprising that there has been significant interest in incorporating health-related quality-of-life measures into the diagnosis of rehabilitative needs of persons with hearing loss and the evaluation of rehabilitative interventions. In a causal chain that begins with hearing loss and its effects on disability and handicap (World Health Organization, 1980), quality of life is an ultimate state or outcome that is a function of all three (Ebrahim, 1995). As might be expected, issues of conceptualization and operational definition have been no less difficult in audiology than in other behavioral domains.
Fortunately, hearing loss is treatable. According to the Better Hearing Institute, 95 percent of Americans with hearing loss can be treated with hearing aids and individuals who treat their hearing loss early have shown significant benefit. Hearing aids help process incoming sound making it easier for your brain to understand them. Other benefits of hearing aids include reduced mental fatigue, decreased feelings of social isolation and depression, improved ability to do several things at once, improved memory, attention and focus, as well as improved communication skills.
Hearing care professionals often work in tandem with other medical professionals. If you or someone you love is experiencing cognitive or emotional problems, schedule a hearing screening by Dr. John R. Simpson at Northeast Georgia ENT. We look forward to helping you live better.