You expect certain things as your loved ones get older: Gray hair, the need for bifocals, stories about “When I was your age.” Hearing loss is another change that we associate with aging. There are many reasons why this occurs: Exposure to loud noises (whether job-related or from a youth spent at rock concerts), medications that cause damage to structures within the ear (some forms of chemotherapy, for example, have this side effect), or simply changes to the inner ear that happen as we age.
But just because an older friend or relative’s hearing loss isn’t a surprise doesn’t mean it’s something you can ignore. Especially because age-related hearing trouble can be subtle–it takes place gradually and over time, not abruptly and dramatically–you might work around it by just speaking more clearly or turning up the TV. Here are four major reasons you should take hearing loss seriously–and talk to your loved one about ways to address it.
1. Hearing problems can create needless risk
In a large building, smoke or fire alarms have a visual component (often a flashing light) in addition to being extremely loud, but most household alarms do not. Fire is an extreme example, but hearing loss can cause sufferers to miss other day-to-day cues: Getting a phone call, a delivery person ringing the doorbell, or (and yes, we’re back in potentially-very-dangerous territory here) car horns. A diminished ability to respond to auditory cues can lead to minor inconveniences–or major risks.
2. Hearing loss has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive issues
A large meta-study (so yes, a study of studies) found that age-related hearing loss had a small but statistically significant association with cognitive decline and dementia. The mechanism is debated, but the most common theory is that when people have difficulty hearing they withdraw socially, lowering their general level of engagement and failing to “exercise” their brains. On the other hand, some researchers argue that when we experience hearing loss, our brains are working so much harder to process and understand sounds that other cognitive tasks get fewer resources.
3. Hearing loss can be costly
If your loved one is concerned that treating hearing problems could be costly, here’s a strong counter-argument: Studies have found that, for numerous reasons, untreated hearing loss can have a negative impact on your wallet. For example, research from 2016 that looked at healthcare costs for a sample of 55- to 64-year-old adults found that people with untreated hearing loss spent, on average, 33% more on doctor’s bills. Why? One of the study’s authors speculated that people with hearing loss may skip preventative care due to trouble communicating, and thus wind up with a hefty bill because a major health issue wasn’t caught earlier. Others point out that hearing loss is related to other health issues such as cognitive decline. Another point to consider: For those who haven’t retired, hearing loss is associated with decreased work productivity, potentially having a direct impact on your paycheck.
4. Hearing loss is linked to depression
Difficulty hearing can have emotional and mental health consequences, too. The inability to hear others clearly can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety and can increase withdrawal and isolation. Especially among elderly people, a lack of social ties is linked to negative mental (and physical) health outcomes. The good news: Treating hearing loss can potentially help alleviate depression, partly because being able to hear makes social situations less anxiety-provoking. A study from the National Council on Aging found that people with hearing difficulty who have hearing aids report fewer symptoms associated with depression and anxiety and more frequently participate in social activities.
How you can help
Talk! By which we mean yes, talk to your loved one about hearing loss, but also just keep the conversation flowing. This can help with cognitive engagement, and it can also help provide a second set of ears (literally) assessing hearing. (Though the reasons are debated, research has shown that people over 70 underreport hearing impairment.) Secondly, encourage your friend or relative to see a hearing specialist. Regular, professional hearing assessments are important for establishing a baseline and understanding how their hearing may be changing, plus a pro can explain the options for addressing hearing loss.