How untreated hearing loss affects general health and well-being

Reading Time: 3 Minutes
22.06.2022

Clients with newly diagnosed hearing loss may be hesitant to take the step toward wearing hearing aids. Although hearing aid adoption has begun to improve in recent years, there is still an estimated 11 million people with untreated hearing loss that could benefit from hearing aids (Jorgensen, 2020, p.1). 

The decision to get a hearing aid involves consideration

The MarkeTrak9 study in 2014 reported 30.2 % of hearing aid adoption while the MarkeTrak10 survey from 2018 shows a slight increase in uptake to 34.1 % (Jorgensen, 2020, p. 1). The same market research investigated how long the clients had been aware of their hearing loss. Those that had purchased hearing aids reported seeking amplification after an average of 6.7 years, while those that were still not using hearing aids reported knowing about their hearing loss for 10.5 years – and had apparently decided to leave it untreated (Jorgensen, 2020, p. 3). When your clients are determining whether to pursue amplification, they should be aware of both the auditory and non-auditory risks associated with untreated hearing loss so that they can make a well-informed decision.

Untreated hearing loss affects the brain

The effects of auditory deprivation from hearing loss are well known. When the brain does not receive stimulation, the parts responsible for processing auditory information can become less efficient at performing their job. When hearing loss remains untreated, the person’s ability to understand and process information will diminish. Functional activities once assigned to auditory parts of the brain may be reassigned to new tasks such as visual processing. Cortical areas are interconnected; therefore, the extent of structural changes to the brain reaches beyond the auditory cortex (Ewall, et al., 2021). Studies that looked at severe to profound hearing loss showed differences not only in auditory processing regions of the brain but also in areas required for executive functioning, memory formation, visual processing, cognition, and language comprehension (Vanderauwera, et al., 2020). With so many regions of the brain that can potentially be affected by hearing loss, it is not surprising that many health conditions accompany hearing loss.

Cognition and hearing loss are connected

Hearing loss is associated with reduced general mental and physical health. There is a correlation between cognition and hearing loss meaning that those with cognitive impairment show a higher chance of having a hearing loss that requires treatment. It is uncertain which condition has the greater impact on the other. One theory is that the auditory deprivation to areas of the brain result in a reduced cognitive demand which causes a decline across various functions. Another theory is that the reduced auditory input received by the brain requires increased effort from other areas to fulfil communication demands. Consequently, there is less energy available for other cognitive tasks due to the increased mental effort and fatigue from trying to communicate (Cherko, et al., 2016).

Hearing loss can lead to loneliness and depression

Reduced cognitive ability negatively affects additional aspects of a person’s wellbeing. It can impair their ability to be independent and social. Reduced cognition can increase the chance of falls and impairs memory function leaving a person less able to care for themselves. Furthermore, social activities may be avoided when communicating is too difficult and tiresome which can then lead to isolation, loneliness, and depression. The symptoms and consequences have a mutual effect on one another that creates a perpetual cycle of poor health. For more details about hearing loss and associated conditions please read the TiA - The benefits of hearing health.

However, the good news is, that treatment with hearing aids to compensate for the hearing loss can also result in better quality of life. A study showed improvements in various areas including general health, mental health, social and emotional function, symptoms of depression, and cognitive function (Cherko, et al., 2016, p. 55). The same study reports that these results were seen within as little time as one month of treatment and could still be seen after one year of treatment (Cherko, et al., 2016, p. 55). However, these results do not come to those that delay and ignore treatment. The age of onset of hearing loss and the duration of the hearing loss can affect the ability of the brain to react to treatment (Vanderauwera, et al., 2020). And habitual use of the hearing aids is an important factor to see the full benefits that they can bring (Cherko, et al., 2016). It can be helpful to involve friends and family in the treatment plan to help clients accept the hearing aids, become more adept at using them, and to get into a routine with them more quickly.

Help your client make a well-informed choice

Age-related hearing loss ranks number three among most prevalent chronic medical conditions experienced by elderly persons following arthritis and hypertension (Vanderauwera, et al., 2020, p. 2). One should view the hidden complications within this statistic as hearing loss is often accompanied by a variety of other health conditions. Therefore, inform your clients about the conditions that hearing loss might lead to and help them make well-informed choices not only regarding their hearing health but their overall well-being.

References

Cherko, M., Hickson, L., and Bhutta, M. (2016). Auditory deprivation and health in the elderly. Maturitas, 88, 52-57.

Ewall, G., Parkins, S., Lin, A., Jaoui, Y., and Lee, H-K. (2021). Cortical and subcortical circuits for cross-modal plasticity induced by loss of vision. Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 15(665009), 1-20. doi: 10.3389/fncir.2021.665009

Jorgensen, L. and Novak, M. (2020). Factors influencing hearing aid adoption. Seminars in Hearing, 41(1), 6-20.

Vanderauwera, J., Hellemans, E., and Verhaert, N. (2020). Research insights on neural effects of auditory deprivation and restoration in unilateral hearing loss: A systematic review. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(812), 1-20.

 

About the author:

Julie Tantau
Julie Tantau, AuD Doctor of Audiology A.T. Still University, Mesa Arizona, USA. MA Audiology. California State University, Long Beach, USA.
Julie is a Research Audiologist at Bernafon. She contributes to various aspects of the development process including running clinical trials to validate the end product before it’s released to the market. Before moving to Switzerland to work for Bernafon in 2012 she worked as a Clinical Audiologist in the United States treating patients with hearing and balance problems. In her private time, Julie enjoys baking and travelling with her family.