Humans have been experiencing age-related hearing loss for millennia. It’s one of the most common medical issues we face as we age. While about one-third of people aged 60–69 have hearing loss, about two-thirds of those 70 and up have it. Among centenarians, hearing loss is nearly ubiquitous, suggesting we’ll all experience it eventually if we just live long enough!
Hearing Loss Is Not Benign
Throughout most of human history, age-related hearing loss was viewed as an annoying but mostly benign part of aging. Perhaps this was because there was little we could do about it, so there wasn’t much point in thinking about the kinds of additional problems it might cause.
The 20th century, however, brought us a plethora of advances in medical understanding and technology, including hearing aids. We now understand—thanks to the hundreds of studies that have been done on the subject—that hearing loss, when left untreated, tends to engender a kind of cascade of negative health outcomes.
Untreated hearing loss has been linked to social withdrawal, depression, isolation, decreased physical activity, increased risk of accidental injury, and even earlier onset of cognitive decline and dementia.
Johns Hopkins Studies
A new trio of studies out of Johns Hopkins University, published in JAMA Network Open and supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has supported some of these findings and deepened our understanding of the extent to which untreated hearing loss may pose problems for us.
In the first study, researchers found that those with hearing loss were sedentary for an average of 34 minutes per day more than those with normal hearing. Study subjects were adults aged 60–69. The amount of sedentary time spent per day increased with the severity of hearing loss, suggesting there may be causation.
The second study scored subjects on their physical function, balance, and walking speed. Indeed, those with hearing loss scored worse than those with normal hearing, and had a faster rate of physical decline.
The third study also examined physical functioning over time but looked specifically at people with moderate or greater hearing loss: they showed a faster decline of physical function than those with normal hearing, but researchers noted that those who wore hearing aids were better off than those with untreated hearing loss.
Hearing Loss and Cognitive Function
While the Johns Hopkins studies did not look at cognitive function, other studies have found that untreated hearing loss is likely to bring about undesirable changes in the brain over time. The World Health Organization (WHO) even includes hearing loss as the most significant out of twelve modifiable risk factors at play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease worldwide.
When it comes to the brain, the adage “use it or lose it” really does seem to hold. When our ears aren’t sending as much information to our brain anymore, the auditory cortex tends to atrophy. It’s not that brain cells die, but the gray matter that supports the structure dissipates, and the structure collapses. Once this occurs, people cannot understand speech even when they hear it! With a good set of hearing aids, the ability to understand speech can be redeveloped over time, but it is much better to start treating hearing loss before this occurs.
Hearing Loss and Cardiovascular Health
In some ways, our hearing ability is like the “canary in the coal mine” of our body. Hearing loss that progresses faster than usual can indicate an underlying cardiovascular condition. By getting a regular hearing test, you might just end up catching a bigger health issue before it becomes acute!
The Better Hearing Institute, a non-profit organization, recommends getting a hearing test once every decade until age 50, and once every three years after that. Those in higher-risk professions or with a medical history indicating a higher risk of hearing loss should be tested even more often.
By getting a regular hearing test, you’ll be doing your best to keep your hearing health in good shape. If hearing aids are recommended, you should start wearing them immediately. Even mild hearing loss (20–40 dBHL of hearing loss at speech frequencies) can present issues that make life harder and start a process of decline.