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The Effects of Untreated Hearing Loss

Have you ever heard the phrase “Use it or lose it?” This phrase is particularly applicable to those who have hearing loss, use hearing aids, or have difficulty understanding speech. Individuals with untreated hearing loss may be at risk of auditory deprivation, or lack of auditory-brain stimulation.

Auditory deprivation happens when hearing loss affects the brain, specifically the auditory cortex, stopping its activation. Research shows that sound deprivation over time can decrease the brain’s ability to decode and understand speech. Since this concept is difficult to grasp, allow me to illustrate this point with a short story about Bob.

About 10 years ago at the age of 52, Bob walked into the office, complaining about tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. After thoroughly reviewing his health history and conducting a hearing evaluation, I gave him his results:

“Bob, you have normal sloping-to-moderate, sensorineural hearing loss in both ears.” Bob gave me a confused look, and I continued to explain. “With this type of hearing loss, 90% of people report some type of tinnitus and slight difficulty understanding speech. When I asked you to repeat the words at a comfortable speaking level without visual cues, you got 82% of the words correct.”

For Bob’s hearing loss and tinnitus, I recommended he have hearing aids fitted for each ear, but Bob refused. Bob wanted an over-the-counter remedy for the mild ringing rather than what he assumed was a longer, more expensive route. Bob decided to wait. He scheduled another hearing evaluation for the following year.

Ten years later, Bob returned for another consultation. This time, he complained that he could hear the sounds, but he couldn’t understand the words his wife said. I conducted another hearing test and compared the results to those of his test 10 years prior.

Although his hearing loss had not changed, the way his brain interpreted or decoded the information it was receiving had worsened. On his first test, he received 82%. Ten years later, he received 56%. The reason that his brain had slowly lost its ability to interpret speech was his moderate hearing loss. The less he heard, the fewer sounds activated his brain and the less he understood.  

USE IT OR LOSE IT

One study compared individuals who wore hearing aids for their hearing loss to those who did not. The results showed that those who didn’t wear hearing aids suffered a decline in their ability to understand speech over a period of two years, whereas their peers who wore hearing aids did not experience this decrease (Silverman et al., 2006).  

Another study showed that individuals who wore a hearing aid in only one ear despite having hearing loss in both ears experienced a decreased understanding of speech with the unaided ear (Arlinger 2003). 

Both studies indicate that using hearing aids may preserve one’s understanding of speech, whereas waiting to treat hearing loss could lead to irreversible decline. 

Not only does untreated hearing loss decrease one’s understanding of speech, it may also have other socio-emotional consequences, including social and emotional withdrawal and depression. Untreated hearing loss is also associated with declining cognition and overall physical health (Cherko et al., 2016). 

Final Thoughts

As research suggests, if Bob had been fitted with hearing aids when first diagnosed, his quality of life may have been substantially different. With hearing aids, his ability to understand words would likely have remained at or near 82%.

The good news for those with hearing loss is that treatment is effective. Early treatment with hearing aids can supply the brain with the sounds it is missing, improve quality of life, and reduce the risk of further auditory deprivation. If you experience any difficulty communicating with others, if you constantly ask others to repeat themselves, or if you are setting the television at a louder volume than usual, you should schedule an appointment with us. As auditory experts, we know how to stop your hearing decline and help you regain access to the sounds you are missing. 

SOURCES:

Arlinger, S. (2003). Negative consequences of uncorrected hearing loss – a review. International Journal of Audiology, 42, 17-20. DOI: 10.3109/14992020309074639

Cherko, M., Hickson, L., & Bhutta, M. (2016). Auditory deprivation and health in the elderly. Maturitas, 88, 52-57. 

Silverman, C. A., Silman, S., Emmer, M. B., Schoepflin, J. R., & Lutolf, J. J. (2006). Auditory Deprivation in Adults with Asymmetric, Sensorineural Hearing Impairment. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology, 17, 747-762. 

A special thank you to Audiologist Dr. Judy Hutch for allowing us to use this blog post!

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