When Everybody Seems to Mumble
By Nancy Johnston Hall, illustration by Kathy Grantham
All joking aside, age-related hearing loss can range from a minor irritation to a serious handicap. “Everyone mumbles,” is one of the first complaints of someone with undiagnosed hearing loss. This is because high frequencies are usually the first to go. But hearing loss can be much more than a frustration for you and those around you. Recent research shows that it’s also linked to disturbing problems that might surprise you.
Hearing professionals are frustrated by the fact that people with age-related hearing loss wait an average of seven to ten years before getting a hearing aid.
Why we lose our hearing as we age
Hearing loss occurs when the tiny hair cells in your inner ear are damaged or die. They don’t regrow, so most hearing loss caused by hair cell damage is permanent. You’re more likely to lose your hearing as you age if the problem runs in your family, if you smoke, if you have diabetes, or if you have had repeated exposure to loud noises.
In the early stages of hearing loss, you think you aren’t understanding people because they’re talking too softly, or that it’s their accent, or they have turned their head away. (This is the blame-others-not-ourselves period.) You also may find you need to turn up the TV or use the subtitles and that you say “What?” a lot. As your hearing grows worse, you start to dislike or avoid social events. Not being able to hear well can lead to social isolation and a real decreased quality of life.
Recent research from Johns Hopkins University shows that hearing loss is also linked to walking problems and falls. As you walk, your ears pick up subtle cues that help with balance. Hearing loss mutes these cues. Also, your brain must work harder just to process sound, which may interfere with some of the mental processing needed to walk safely. The risk of falling increases threefold even with mild hearing loss.
The greater the hearing problem, the greater the risk of dementia. The Johns Hopkins study found that mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk, moderate loss tripled risk, and those with severe impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia. Brain scans show that hearing loss may cause a faster rate of atrophy to the brain. Although the cause of this link is uncertain, Johns Hopkins researcher Frank Lin, MD, PhD, says it may be because of social isolation. “You may not want to be with people as much, and when you are, you may not engage in conversation as much. These factors may contribute to dementia,” Lin explains. No research yet shows that hearing aids can reduce these risks, but Lin says, “What we do know is that there’s no downside to using hearing aids. They help most people who try them. And in those people, they can make all the difference in the world—allowing people to reengage with friends and family and to be more involved again.”
Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with nearly 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Last year Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.