Hearing is our most critical sense when it comes to our ability to communicate, and even small degrees of hearing loss can have profound effects on how we interact and connect with others. Being separated from that ability not only has consequences for our social lives — it can have physical effects, as well, that can detract significantly from overall health.
Social Effects of Hearing Loss
Those suffering from hearing loss often begin to notice their difficulty in the following circumstances:
- Hearing conversations in large groups
- Participating in conversation in restaurants or other settings with background noise
- Hearing on the telephone
- Understanding women’s and children’s voices
Party settings and even small family gatherings can strain hearing to the point where the additional mental effort required to decode what seems like broken speech can become tiresome. Eventually such social situations can become so difficult that those experiencing hearing loss may begin to withdraw from them altogether. Individuals instead begin to prefer less demanding, quieter settings — often away from the precious social contact that enriches our lives and draws us closer to the ones we love.
The stress of living with hearing loss, too, can have its own consequences:
- Distrust of others
- Anger at not feeling understood
- Feeling socially marginalized
Reluctance to seek treatment or to wear hearing aids can cause additional stress when individuals — often unconsciously — wish to conceal their hearing loss, and potentially miss out on important communications. Compromised hearing in the workplace, for instance, can have significant effects on job performance and even earning potential.
Common Types of Hearing Loss
- Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SHL): The most common type of hearing loss, SHL is typically the result of damage to the delicate hair cells in the inner-ear organ (the cochlea) that are responsible for picking up sounds. When these hair cells — or the nerves they connect to — are damaged or destroyed by repeated exposure to loud noise, hearing becomes more difficult. Because hearing damage usually affects the highest frequencies first, loud-noise exposure can result in permanent high-frequency hearing loss.
- Conductive Hearing Loss: This is a type of hearing loss that is typically the result of an infection or blockage in the outer or middle ear. Otitis media (middle-ear infections) can sometimes cause difficulty hearing due to a fluid buildup. Swimmer’s ear or a buildup of earwax may create a blockage outside the eardrum. This type of hearing loss is typically reversible once the infection or blockage clears, or once necessary surgery is performed.
- Mixed Hearing Loss: Individuals with mixed hearing loss typically suffer from some combination of SHL and a semipermanent conductive hearing loss, such as a malfunction of one of the ossicles (tiny bones that conduct sound) in the middle ear. Hearing may improve after the conductive portion of the hearing loss is resolved through treatment or surgery. SHL is usually permanent.
- Unilateral Hearing Loss: Hearing loss that occurs in only one ear is referred to as unilateral hearing loss. This can be present at birth, may happen spontaneously, or can occur over the course of several days (referred to as sudden hearing loss). Unilateral hearing loss may delay or otherwise affect speech and language development, and children may have difficulty identifying where sounds are coming from (localization), hearing speech in noisy situations, and hearing from longer distances. Children who are born with unilateral hearing loss can achieve success academically, economically, and socially by focusing on communication development.
- Sudden Hearing Loss: A sudden loss in hearing, either entirely or partially, within a 24-hour period — or immediately. Degrees of deafness vary, and while sudden hearing loss typically resolves itself within two weeks, it’s possible that hearing may never return. Treatment may include steroids to support the recovery of hearing, but patients who see no change within two weeks are unlikely to see improvement. Those who suffer from a sudden hearing loss should consult their physician immediately, as faster treatment greatly increases chances of a full recovery. About 85 percent of those who seek treatment will recover some of their hearing.
- High-Frequency Hearing Loss: Those with high-frequency hearing loss can usually hear vowels just fine, but consonant sounds — like f, s, t, and z — become difficult to hear. High-frequency hearing loss is often difficult to diagnose, because it occurs slowly over several decades, like most forms of sensorineural hearing loss. Early signs are an inability to hear higher-octave sounds, like a bird chirping or the voice of a woman or small child. Difficulty conversing in groups or hearing speech in background noise also indicate the possibility of a high-frequency hearing loss. Using hearing protection prior to being exposed to loud noises will help prevent high-frequency hearing loss, while hearing aids are an effective treatment.
Physical Effects of Hearing Loss
Untreated hearing loss over extended periods of time can have damaging physical effects, as well, when the auditory system goes unused. Auditory deprivation, as audiologists refer to it, leaves nerves and portions of the brain underused, and — like other parts of the body — if the auditory system goes unused, it can begin to atrophy. Without fail, in our experience, the longer a patient waits to address their hearing loss, the more difficult it is to recover one’s ability to communicate.
Increasing Evidence Connects Hearing Loss to Dementia
Additionally, increasing evidence points to a connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. According to a study published in January 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine, adults in their 70s and 80s with hearing loss developed cognitive problems at a rate 30 to 40 percent faster than those without hearing loss. While the reason for this apparent connect remains unknown, researchers have speculated that social isolation might be a factor. The additional mental demands of having to constantly decode speech might also be a contributing factor to the types of cognitive changes that, over time, can lead to the onset of dementia.
Since most hearing loss develops gradually over time, it can be difficult to know how well you are hearing now compared with how well you used to hear. Only an accurate hearing test can reveal if you are having difficulty with specific sounds, and if so, how you might be able to hear better.