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Health Mythbusters: Is Hearing Loss Just 'Part of Getting Older?'
Relying on research and fact-based data to make decisions about our health is more important than ever. Health Mythbusters is a regular column in which Dal Health researchers challenge widely held beliefs about health and wellness issues. This month, Dr. Sarah Mason discusses hearing loss and aging.
Dr. Sarah Mason serves as the Academic Coordinator for Clinical Education (Audiology) at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) where she teaches courses in clinical methods and pediatric aural rehabilitation. She currently serves on the Advocacy Committee as well as the Practice Education Committee at SCSD. She supervises patient care through the Dalhousie Hearing aid Assistance Program and on-site Audiology Clinic at the school. Her professional interests include special populations, family centred counselling, student advocacy and mentorship. A full bio on Dr. Mason can be found here: https://www.dal.ca/faculty/health/scsd/faculty-staff/our-faculty/Sarah-Mason.html
Five questions for Dr. Mason on hearing loss and aging:
It’s been said that hearing loss is a ‘normal’ part of aging. What do you say to that?
There is a common misperception that hearing loss is a “normal” part of growing old. While there are some age-related causes of hearing loss, it can occur at any age. Hearing loss can be caused by hereditary factors, noise exposure, some medications, head trauma and certain illnesses such as viral infections. It is also be associated with other medical conditions such as diabetes and dementia. Hearing loss can be temporary or permanent and problems can occur anywhere along the auditory pathway up to the brain.
Over the years as an audiologist, I have heard many reasons why older adults delay or avoid getting a hearing assessment. Finding excuses (for example, “people just don’t speak clearly,” ‘it’s not a bad enough problem yet,’ or ‘hearing aids are too expensive.’) is a common coping strategy. Hearing loss can sometimes happen very gradually over time, so there may not be a sense of urgency compared to other health issues. If older adults think later-onset hearing loss is something that ‘you can just learn to deal with,’ then we need to do a better job educating the public about the important risks of delaying appropriate action.
What are the consequences of this myth?
While it is true that hearing loss can be a common issue in older adults, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored or pushed off to a later date. Many audiologists agree that the longer a hearing loss is ignored or left untreated, the harder it is to manage symptoms. There can be serious health consequences for ignoring symptoms of hearing loss. For example, undetected hearing loss can delay or limit medical intervention. Well established research indicates that untreated hearing loss can lead to increased risk of depression, anxiety, social isolation and physical falls. There is now strong evidence of an association between untreated hearing loss and accelerated cognitive decline.
Given the growing public health awareness and appropriate concern related to dementia, it is especially important to educate everyone about the importance of getting a routine hearing screen. If people feel that hearing loss is a normal part of aging, I am concerned they may think it is okay to delay addressing concerns.
What benefits are there to having your hearing checked, and hearing issues addressed early?
Like with most health conditions, early detection can prevent or limit serious problems later on in life. For example, obtaining a hearing assessment will identify a need for further consultation with a physician. Learning about communication strategies along with modern hearing aid technologies can have a transformative effect on quality of life. Treating hearing loss doesn’t just help the patient, it helps the entire family unit which may lead to reduced frustration, embarrassment and isolation.
Communicating effectively is an essential part of life. Addressing and identifying any health issue is the first step in alleviating concerns and becoming an active participant in one's own medical care.
Where do you think this myth comes from? Are there gender differences in how people see this issue?
There has been a negative sigma about hearing loss for many years. Hearing loss is sometimes described as ‘invisible.’ It can also progress very slowly, which makes it easier to ignore or miss completely. Some people with progressive hearing loss don’t even notice it themselves, rather family members identify an emerging problem. There are multiple studies that suggest that adults wait many years before addressing their concerns about hearing loss.
Regarding gender differences, there are studies that suggest that women are more likely to disclose hearing loss compared to men. However, most studies conclude that both genders delay or avoid wearing hearing aids when they could benefit from that type of technology.
We still have a lot of work to do to change the sigma that surrounds hearing loss.
What is your advice to anyone experiencing hearing loss?
Common signs of undiagnosed hearing loss include concerns from family or friends (such as complaints that the TV is too loud, or that they have to continuously repeat themselves), and complaints by the person with hearing loss (such as other people ‘mumbling,’ frequent requests for clarification, ringing in the ear (called tinnitus), difficulty hearing in small groups, or when there is noise around). This may lead to avoidance of social situations or frustration and embarrassment.
I recommend a hearing screening for everybody by the age of 55, earlier if there are concerns. In fact, routine hearing screens (every two years) should be a regular part of preventive medical care. While hearing loss can happen as we get older, that is not a good idea to wait too long for evaluation and treatment. If you or someone in your family have concerns about hearing loss, a hearing assessment should not be delayed.
Bottom line: Hearing loss can be complicated, and concerns should never be ignored. We get routine dental and eye exams. We need to also get routine hearing exams for our overall health and well-being. Hearing assessments are relatively quick, painless and well worth the effort. Learning about your hearing status and its impact on your lifestyle can be very enlightening. It is also good for your health!
For more information, please visit https://www.dal.ca/faculty/health/scsd/clinical-education.html
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