Hearing loss is recognized as a common aspect of aging, but is often viewed as relatively inconsequential. Hearing loss is more than a mere inconvenience, however. A recent essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association summarizes recent findings on the epidemiology of hearing loss, and argues that it is time for researchers, clinicians, and the general public to take hearing loss more seriously.
The author of the essay highlights recent findings that associate age-related hearing loss (ARHL) with poorer cognitive functioning and increased dementia risk. The specific pathways of this association are unclear, but ARHL has a direct negative influence on verbal communication, which then puts individuals at risk for social isolation and reduced social engagement. ARHL may also negatively affect cognition; individuals with ARHL must devote additional cognitive resources to compensate for their reduced auditory input, and as a result, daily tasks related to hearing require greater cognitive effort. The sum of these findings suggest that hearing loss may have a substantial public health cost.
The essay notes that there are advocacy groups who promote awareness for ARHL treatment, but that there is currently no large concentrated public health program targeting ARHL. Researchers on ARHL work in different fields of study—namely, gerontology, audiology, and otolaryngology—that are not often in discussion with one another, which further hinders research. Because of this, the current model of ARHL treatment is insufficient, requiring significant effort and motivation on the part of patients. Hearing aid technology, for example, is generally perceived as inconvenient or uncomfortable by individual users, and advances such as hearing-loop induction technology are rarely made available. Interdisciplinary research on ARHL, paired with greater public awareness of the consequences of hearing loss, might lead to substantial public health improvements around ARHL.
Lin FR (2012). Hearing loss in older adults: Who’s listening? JAMA 301(11)1147-1148.