As an audiologist, treating hearing loss is a part of my everyday life. Even still, I’m sometimes amazed at the difference hearing aids can make in patients’ lives. For example, recently, when an older patient with longstanding hearing loss was fitted with a pair of hearing aids, he was suddenly able to participate in conversation with his son again. The smile across his face said everything.
Hearing well can slow cognitive decline.
Older patients’ lack of engagement in conversation or lost conversation threads can be attributed to cognitive decline. However, hearing loss is an invisible disability. It is not always clear when someone misunderstands a conversation, whether it is due to hearing difficulty or cognitive decline. That is why hearing health should be a part of a routine annual health exam for the same reason we have annual physicals or vision exams.
It is frustrating for families with loved ones struggling with cognitive decline. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of hearing health to help maintain cognitive health.
In 2017, the WHO identified hearing loss as the leading modifiable risk factor for cognitive decline when identified and addressed at age 45 to 64.
It is much easier to maintain cognitive function and prevent its decline when treated early than to try to mitigate its effects after cognitive decline has taken hold.
Additionally, the trickle-down effects of untreated hearing loss can include decreased socialization, leading to depression, anxiety, and reduced quality of life.
Hearing loss can have a big impact on health care costs and income.
Hearing loss can be costly for both patients and the health care system. According to a recent study, those with untreated hearing loss will have an additional $22,434 in health care costs over ten years than patients with normal hearing. Misunderstandings in patient-provider interactions can lead to increased health care costs or misunderstandings regarding medication instructions, for example.
Not only that, but hearing loss can also impact salary. Estimates speculate that employees lose as much as $30,000 per year in annual salary with an untreated hearing loss. This means that untreated hearing loss can cause someone to miss out on earning potential and spend more money on health expenses.
The good news is that for many people with hearing loss, treatment can make a big difference in overall health and well-being as well as financial health.
Why hearing can affect cognition and how treatment can help
Hearing loss causes distortion in what a person hears, requiring more effort to decode the information and creating additional cognitive load. Cognitive resources are then working harder to interpret the distorted auditory signal through visual cues, meaning that there are fewer cognitive resources available for higher-level processing (e.g., the meaning behind the words, tone of voice, etc.).
A growing body of research is backing this up and showing that early hearing loss intervention can slow cognitive decline. For example, an fMRI study showed that before being fitted with a hearing aid, individuals had less activation in areas of the brain for auditory and language processing and more in the visual.
After one year of hearing aid use, participants had increased brain activity in the areas of auditory and language centers and areas for multimodal integration. This means that participants were much better able to process and make sense of the information coming in, freeing up cognitive resources for higher-up processing.
Patients listen to and value physician insight to their health. Regular hearing evaluations can help maintain cognitive health, mental health, overall well-being, and financial health. Encouraging patients to treat their hearing loss has a multitude of advantages, and your recommendation might be just what they need to take that first step.
Amy Sarow is an audiologist.
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