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With more than 30 million Americans living with hearing loss, it might surprise you to find out that only a very small percentage of folks seek treatment immediately. The age group most impacted by acquired hearing loss, that which one is not born with, are people over the age of 65. This type of hearing loss, characterized by damage to the inner ear cells and tissue, is the result of exposure to excessive noise or the very process of aging.
And while most people agree that hearing health plays an important role in quality of life, fewer than 20 percent of Americans have recently had a hearing exam within the past five years according to a survey from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. That compared to the 60 percent of people who had recently undergone an eye exam.
Our practice of ignoring hearing health leads to many people with age-related hearing loss going undiagnosed and untreated.
How age-related hearing loss works
As we age, our bodies themselves go through a transformation. The vitality of our cells might decline, it’s more difficult to keep muscle tone and wrinkles and sagginess appear. The same thing is happening at the cellular level of our body, in those places we can’t see with our own eyes.
The inner ear cells are an example of this. They’re integral to the hearing process, to our ability to hear the full spectrum of sound, and yet we are born with a finite number. Like many other cells within the body, they are non-regenerative, which means that they do not repair themselves or reproduce.
Their job is to collect sound from the world around us and transform it into sound information that is then sent to the brain. That sound information is processed by our brain into what we consider meaningful sound: language, music and environmental landscapes.
As the years take their toll on our inner ear cells, they begin to decline. When we lose inner ear cells, we also lose our ability to collect all of that lovely sound around us. We collect and send less sound information to the brain. We hear less.
Symptoms of hearing loss
This is an irreversible and often very subtle process. At first, we will lose the ability to hear frequencies. This impacts how well we understand others when they speak, or speech clarity. You might find yourself asking people to repeat themselves more frequently. Eventually, as hearing loss goes untreated, you may avoid conversations altogether because they tend to be frustrating.
The early warning signs of hearing loss can be so unconscious, that it is sometimes our friends and family that notice changes to behavior first.
Why people wait to treat hearing loss
Humans are extremely adaptable and that often works in our favor. However, when it comes to adapting to hearing loss, it can become a problem. You might notice that your hearing isn’t what it used to be, but decide it’s not that bad. You can live with the slight inconvenience and it isn’t worth a diagnosis or intervention. But hearing loss is a progressive condition, which means that it will get worse with time. By then, you have begun to change behaviors — becoming less confident and social — to accommodate the condition.
The average person waits ten years or more before they choose to intervene. What that means is they wait until their hearing loss has become intolerable before they seek help. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Hearing loss is not a part of aging that you just have to live with. Although the condition is mostly irreversible, it is highly treatable.
Benefits of treating hearing loss
Contrary to people who think that hearing aids will make them look old, most people with hearing aids report improved confidence as a result. Investing in hearing loss treatment can help to alleviate common complications of hearing loss including social isolation and depression. Hearing aids are also one way to significantly lower your risk of a future dementia diagnosis.
The data on who chooses to treat hearing loss and when has remained low and relatively steady for half a century. But, as the Baby Boomer generation ages into the demographic most impacted by age-related hearing loss, some experts agree that they are likely to change the previous statistics surrounding hearing loss treatment. This is the generation that grew up with hi-fidelity sound, a generation that is interested in jumping into high tech advancements that improve quality of life.