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Hearing loss doesn’t just impact your hearing. At its heart, hearing loss interrupts our ability to communicate and connect with others. And we become more aware of the ways that challenges with the sense of hearing can ripple into many other facets of life, including physical health.
A study published in 2021 found that people with hearing loss are more likely to have physical impairments such as lack of muscle, endurance and general fitness. Overall, this leads to substantial difficulty performing everyday tasks and activities and can exacerbate dependence upon others.
It’s more important than ever to treat hearing loss as a means to continue enjoying a vibrant and independent life.
How hearing loss works
While there are a number of ways a person might develop hearing loss, by far the most common denominator is aging. Age has been and remains the strongest predictor for hearing loss. That’s because as we age, the sensitive inner ear cells that receive sound from the world around us decline. They can also be damaged through excessive exposure to noise, and in fact, many people exhibit a blend of these two types of hearing loss.
As the number of inner ear cells decreases, we cannot receive the full spectrum of noise around us. Less sound information is sent to the brain and we hear less. We tend to lose access to frequencies first and typically high frequency sounds are the first to go.
Symptoms of hearing loss
It’s important to note that we lose sound frequencies gradually because it helps to explain the early signs of hearing loss. Instead of an overall lowering of volume, the first warnings are usually having trouble with speech clarity. It becomes difficult to understand speech and what people are saying. This can extend to understanding dialogue in television shows, movies or podcasts and radio shows.
It’s difficult to self-diagnose hearing loss, because we so often develop strategies and coping mechanisms before we’re even aware that hearing loss is at play. Instead, friends and family will first notice changes in behavior that serve as an alert that hearing loss is happening.
People with untreated hearing loss are more likely to experience depression and report a sense of isolation, stemming from their difficulty talking and connecting with others.
The balance problem
But our ears do more than hear. Our sense of hearing is inextricably connected to our balance, as both share structures located within the ear. The vestibular (balance) and auditory (hearing) systems both use the vestibulocochlear nerve as a pathway of information to the brain.
Hearing loss can lead to balance disorders at worst and a shakier grasp on balance at best. We also use our ears to locate ourselves in the world, because our brain measures the sound perception of each ear as a way to measure where something is coming from or to determine how close we are to things.
This explains why people with hearing loss are more likely to experience accidental falls. Their balance is compromised and they have less perception of where they are located in space.
Hearing loss and physical activity
All of this is to say that hearing loss can severely erode a person’s confidence. Difficulty communicating with other people and a decreased sense of safety may be why people with hearing loss are also less likely to leave their immediate home. Over the course of many years, Finnish scientists have studied this very phenomenon, finding that people with hearing loss were twice as likely to restrict their movements and stay very close to home.
We also see people with hearing loss cease participation in group or social activities they used to join due to lack of confidence or the increased frustration that communicating takes when living with untreated hearing loss.
As movement and experiences continue to shrink for a person with hearing loss, ability also decreases.
Treating hearing loss supports physical ability
While most instances of age-related and noise-induced hearing loss are irreversible, they’re highly treatable. Hearing aids and cochlear implants have been used to successfully intervene in hearing loss for decades. A small study published in The Laryngoscope found that people did better in balance tests when their hearing aid was turned on (compared to turned off). Another study done at the University of Michigan confirmed that hearing aid wearers had a reduced risk of accidental falls.