I recently read about a patient who was told by his doctor to “just go with the basic hearing aids as they’ll spend more time in the case than your ears, anyway.”
While the ‘basic’ model can do you just fine, depending on your hearing loss and lifestyle requirements, I find this attitude abhorrent. Studies show that the views of health practitioners go a long way in determining whether or not a person will actually wear (and be satisfied with) their hearing aids.
I fear this lax attitude towards hearing loss is indicative of a wider problem amongst our general practitioners.
Hearing loss affects more than your ability to hear
Untreated hearing loss (whether the result of not wanting to buy or wear hearing aids) can have serious implications for your well-being. Adult hearing loss is linked to dementia, depression, isolation, unemployment and diminished relationships. Yet, of all the senses, hearing seems to get ignored the most.
Dr Frank Lin, one of the most widely respected researchers in the area of hearing loss and cognition, suggests that “many clinicians perceive hearing loss as being an inevitable, and hence inconsequential, part of ageing.”
Hearing loss and dementia
Dr Lin is an expert on the side effects of hearing loss – dementia in particular. The assistant professor of John Hopkins University recently told a conference in Washington that when people struggle to hear it damages memory and brain function.
He is currently revisiting his 2013 study on the links between hearing loss and dementia (it suggested that hearing loss is linked to a 30-40% greater risk of cognitive decline). Dr Lin and his team are setting out to undertake the world’s first clinical trial to see if hearing aids can prevent or mitigate brain decline.
Hearing loss is believed to link to dementia in several ways. Research shows that people with hearing loss are mentally drained from the strain of listening everyday. This weakens their working memory. According to Lin’s studies, brain scans published in 2014 showed diminished grey matter to shrink in areas related to language and memory in people with hearing loss over six years, the same region associated with early Alzheimer’s.
So why aren’t health professionals more concerned?
The side effects of untreated hearing loss can be insidious, yet they’re preventable with the appropriate hearing aids – as long as they’re worn.
But hearing screenings are not usually a standard part of medical assessments. Too often patients must present with severe to profound hearing impairment in order for audiology referral to take place. What’s more, hearing tests are not infallible; the pure tone or ‘beep’ test commonly administered does not always pick up early-stage hearing loss.
Ironically, hearing loss can masquerade as a loss of mental sharpness, and older people with hearing loss appearing disengaged or confused are at times misdiagnosed with cognitive illness. It’s easy to see how this can happen, when common dementia screening tests depend on a patient’s ability to hear.
And I can only blame a lack of education for the reason some clinicians advise patients to wait until things get worse before bothering with hearing aids.
What’s the answer?
Dr Frank Lin thinks that hearing loss being treated as an afterthought could be in part rectified by increased awareness, understanding, and the availability of more accessible options for obtaining hearing care.
Hopefully the findings of his new study, at the very least, bring hearing loss and its effects to the forefront of the minds of health professionals when assessing a patient and discussing hearing solution options.
If you suspect that hearing loss is a problem which has not been picked up previously, prompt a discussion with your GP or refer to an audiology service.