• Nearly 25% of those aged 65-74 and half of those older than 75 have disabling hearing loss.
  • Among adults ages 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30%) has ever used them. Even fewer (~16%) adults ages 20-69 who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them.

Source: NIDCD

Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is the loss of hearing that gradually occurs as a result of our body’s aging process. It is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults. There are many causes of age-related hearing loss. Most commonly, it arises from changes in the inner ear as we age, but it can also result from changes in the middle ear, from complex changes along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain, or from the cumulative effects of long-term noise exposure. Hearing loss can also be caused by viral or bacterial infections, heart conditions or stroke, head injuries, tumors, and certain medicines, as well as continued and prolonged exposure to noise.

Age-related hearing loss most often occurs in both ears, affecting them equally. Because the loss is gradual, if you have age-related hearing loss you may not realize that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear.

Sources: NIDCD; NIH Senior Health; Hearing Health magazine, Summer 2015 issue.

Regardless of age, type of hearing loss, or cause, if left untreated or undetected hearing loss can have negative effects on your well-being. Untreated hearing loss can lead to considerable, negative social, psychological, cognitive, and health effects and can seriously impact professional and personal life, at times leading to isolation and depression.

Here are some other ways hearing loss can affect your overall health:

  • Falls: Our ears play an important and large role in our balance. One study that found that even a mild hearing loss means you are “three times more likely to have a history of falling.” The older someone is the more dangerous these falls can be.
     
  • Cognitive Function:Those with mild hearing impairment are nearly twice as likely to develop dementia compared with those with typical hearing. The risk increases threefold for those with moderate hearing loss, and five-fold for those with severe impairment. The connection isn’t yet clear, but the some researchers believe it may result from those with hearing loss straining to decode sounds, increasing the brain’s cognitive load.  

    From 2001-2007, a study tested the hearing and cognitive abilities of nearly 2,000 adults between ages 75-84. Those with hearing loss lost cognitive abilities up to 40% more quickly than typical-hearing participants. Additionally, participants with hearing loss developed cognitive issues on average three years sooner than those with typical hearing. The decline of cognitive ability impairs other brain functions, such as thinking and memory retention.

  • Heart Health: Six decades of research suggests a link between our cardiovascular and hearing health. Raymond Hull, Ph.D., who analyzed 70 scientific studies, believes, “Our entire auditory system, especially the blood vessels of the inner ear, needs an oxygen-rich nutrient supply. If it doesn’t get it due to cardiovascular health problems, then hearing can be affected.” Cardiovascular disease appears to exaggerate the impact of those causes and intensify the degree of hearing decline. This compounded effect not only increases the difficulty a person experiences in perceiving what has been said, but also diminishes their ability to make sense of what they hear with speed and accuracy.  

    In 2009 David R. Friedland, M.D., found that audiogram pattern correlates strongly with arterial disease, even acting as a heart-health test for those at risk. His study concluded that patients with low-frequency hearing loss may have a greater likelihood of cardiovascular events.

    A 2014 study found that the risk of hearing impairment was significantly greater in people with underlying atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, than in those without blood vessel abnormalities, suggesting that hearing loss may be an early sign of cardiovascular disease in outwardly healthy people.

  • Diabetes: The National Institutes of Health found that hearing loss is twice as common among people with diabetes compared with those who do not have the disease. Also, of the 79 million adults thought to have pre-diabetes, the rate of hearing loss is 30% higher than in those with normal blood sugar levels.  

    Research suggests that diabetes may lead to hearing loss by damaging the nerves and blood vessels of the inner ear, which has also been shown in autopsies of patients with diabetes.

  • Kidneys: A 2010 Australian study examined the medical records of 2,500 people ages 50 and over; one-fifth had moderate chronic kidney disease. It found that more than half of all the patients with chronic kidney disease had some degree of hearing loss, compared with 28% of those who had no kidney problems. In addition, nearly a third of the chronic kidney disease patients had a severe hearing loss compared to just 10% among those patients without kidney issues.  

    According to the researchers, “The link can be explained by structural and functional similarities between tissues in the inner ear and in the kidney. Additionally, toxins that accumulate in kidney failure can damage nerves, including those in the inner ear.” Also, some drug treatments for kidney ailments are ototoxic, meaning they cause hearing loss.

If you have difficulty hearing, Hearing Health Foundation strongly encourages you visit your healthcare provider, audiologist, and/or ENT.

Sources: NIDCD; NIH Senior Health; Better Hearing Institute; Hearing Health magazine, Fall 2014; John Hopkins Medicine.