Hearing Loss and Aging: Fact or Fallacy?

We’ve all been present at some time or another when someone makes a hurtful comment about hearing loss.  Often, these comments imply hearing loss and aging go hand in hand.

“The ears are the first thing to go, haha.” How many times have we heard this?

Sometimes we witness people imitating a nineteenth-century horn placed in the ear or cupping the ear imitating how we look when we struggle to hear.

Over the years, one of the main reasons I have heard friends or family give when they are resistant to getting help is the negative stereotype society has placed on wearing these devices.  We’ve all seen the advertisements claiming the manufacturer has the smallest device to offer, almost invisible!  Finally, the industry has realized that a plastic flesh-colored instrument still looks like a hearing aid.  Both the hearing aid and cochlear implant manufacturers have realized that many people really want something that is small or similar to mainstream Bluetooth devices.

Is there any truth that hearing loss is a sign of aging?  The short answer is sometimes.  Babies are born everyday who are deaf.  Sometimes, children who are born deaf have multiple disabilities, and sometimes being deaf is their only disability.

Let’s talk about the adult population.  Here are some interesting facts about hearing loss, disease and aging:

“Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is the loss of hearing that gradually occurs in most of us as we grow older.  It is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults.” (nidcd.nih.gov)

“A recent study found that hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as it is in those who don’t have the disease.  Also, of the 86 million adults in the U.S. who have pre-diabetes, the rate of hearing loss is 30 percent higher than in those with normal blood glucose.” (diabetes.org)

“Studies have shown that a healthy cardiovascular system–a person’s heart, arteries and veins–has a positive effect on hearing.  Conversely, inadequate blood flow and trauma to the blood vessels of the inner ear can contribute to hearing loss.”  (better hearing.org)

Having a stroke may damage the areas of your brain related to hearing–this can cause hearing loss. (www.nhs.uk)

Dementia – Many of us who belong to the Hearing Loss Association of America (www.hearingloss.org), have had the opportunity to hear Dr. Frank Lin speak.  Dr. Lin, as an assistant professor at John Hopkins and an otologist and epidemiologist studies the effects of hearing loss in older adults.  According to an article in the January 15, 2015 Chicago Tribune, “A 2011 study of some 600 older adults found that those with hearing loss at the beginning of the study were more likely to develop dementia than adults with normal hearing.  In fact, the more severe the hearing loss, the more likely they were to develop dementia; volunteers with mild, moderate and severe loss were two, three and five times more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing. (chicagotribune.com)

I found this interesting because as we age, our metabolism slows down:   In a 2010 study, Shinichi Someya, et al  found that a caloric restriction extends the life span and health span of a variety and species and slows the progression of age-related hearing loss.  The study implies this may be true in mammals. (journals.plos.org)

There are other areas of our well being that hearing loss can affect.  Many people with hearing loss are isolated, depressed, lack socialization and connections, and all of these can affect our homeostasis.  As some of this research implies, the ear is not an isolated part of our being.

Finally, to get back to the beginning of this article which references jokes about the ears being the first thing to go, countless studies by health professional such as gerontologists, hospice workers and others will tell you at the end of life, hearing is the last sense to go.

“Most people with a terminal illness become unconscious in the last few hours or even days before death.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t know you are there.  Many palliative care and hospice professionals will tell you that hearing is often the last sense to go at the end of life. ” (m.webmd.com)

Well after your loved one can no longer speak, he or she can still hear you say, “I love you.”  (m.webmd.com)  I think that’s pretty amazing.