The Surprising Side Effects of Hearing Loss

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older woman with hand cupped to her ear

Hearing loss is common in older adults. By age 75, the chances of hearing loss are almost one in two, according to the National Institute on Aging.

The problem can have devastating consequences. Older adults with hearing loss are at greater risk for depression, cognitive decline and dementia.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge hearing loss and see a doctor for help, says Alejandro Rivas, MD, Division Chief of Otology and Neurotology at UH.

“In adults, social isolation is a real problem with hearing loss,” says Dr. Rivas, director of the Cochlear Implant Program at UH. “What happens with social isolation is over time it can create cognitive decline. With cognitive decline, you can end up with dementia.”

There also is a link between hearing loss and balance problems in older adults, which can increase risk of falls, he says.

“Problems with hearing can go along with problems with balance. When one fails the other one can fail, too,” Dr. Rivas says. “But we also know that when we stimulate the hearing organ, you can have some improvement in balance. You’re able to pay more attention and decrease falls by having better hearing acuity.”

Hearing aids will help those with mild or moderate hearing loss. Cochlear implants are available for people with severe hearing loss. The small electronic devices provide a sense of sound through the auditory nerve to the brain. Cochlear implants are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for adults and children 12 months old and older.

It's Not Just Aging

Aging alone can cause hearing loss, but there also are a number of other causes. Exposure to loud noises is one of the most common. Loud noises can damage structures in the inner ear. Sustained exposure to loud noises such as lawnmowers and amplified music can cause gradual hearing loss, but even a single burst of loud noise such as an explosion can permanently damage hearing. Ear protection is vital in occupational settings and other places where decibel counts are high.

Signs of hearing loss include having trouble understanding words when people talk or following conversations involving two or more people. Words and sounds may seem muffled or distorted and background noise may be problematic.

Dr. Rivas emphasizes that hearing health is important for overall health.

“Our ability to communicate with each other keeps our brain healthy,” he says. “When that’s not present, our humanity goes down and our quality of life goes down with it.”

Related Links

The nationally recognized team of hearing and balance experts at University Hospitals, many of whom have advanced fellowship training in the ear, nose and throat subspecialties of otology, neurotology and lateral skull base surgery, provide specialized care for ear, hearing and balance disorders. Learn more about the Ear, Hearing and Balance Center at University Hospitals.


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