DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My father is 80. He recently started having trouble with his hearing, but he doesn’t think he needs to have it checked. He says that it’s just part of being old. But I’m worried about the impact not being able to hear is having on him. He struggles to take part in conversation, and he seems withdrawn. Would a hearing evaluation be a good idea?
ANSWER: Yes, your father should have his hearing checked. Although hearing loss is common as people age, it’s important to confirm the underlying cause. Often, there are steps that can be taken to improve hearing, no matter a person’s age. Correcting hearing loss can help keep older adults active and engaged in their daily lives. It also can decrease the risk of developing other health conditions.
Hearing loss is a widespread problem. About 36 million Americans have some level of hearing loss, and it becomes more prevalent as people get older. Approximately one-third of Americans 65 to 74 have hearing loss. That number increases to half in adults over 75.
Although effective treatments are available to help improve hearing loss, only about 20 percent of people who could benefit from treatment actually seek help. This lack of treatment often significantly affects the social, physical and cognitive health of older adults.
As in your father’s case, having difficulty in social situations and withdrawing from interactions with others are common consequences of hearing loss. That can spiral into other problems. When a person doesn’t have meaningful social interactions, it increases the risk of depression. And it can negatively affect eating and sleeping habits. In some people, it also may increase the risk of alcoholism or other forms of chemical dependency.
Hearing loss can also take a physical toll. When difficulty hearing keeps a person home more often, they may be less engaged in physical activity and become more sedentary. That reduction in physical activity can trigger weight gain, decrease in muscle tone and a loss of balance that can increase the risk of falls. Some research indicates untreated hearing loss may lead to a higher risk of cognitive problems, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Although most people think of hearing aids when they consider treatment for hearing loss, various treatment options are available. Depending on the underlying cause of the hearing problem, treatment may include surgery, a cochlear implant, hearing aids, assistive listening devices or a combination of those therapies.
Determining the right treatment starts with a comprehensive evaluation to pinpoint the reason for hearing loss. Although age-related loss is common, other factors may contribute to decreased hearing, too. For example, earwax buildup often contributes to hearing difficulty, and wax usually can be easily removed by a healthcare provider.
If your father needs a hearing aid, it may be comforting for him to know that hearing aid technology has advanced dramatically over recent decades. Hearing aids now are better able to recognize and automatically adjust for different listening environments, and they are highly customizable. Contemporary hearing aids also communicate easily with phones and other devices, such as TVs and microphones, making listening to those devices much easier.
Encourage your father to have his hearing evaluated. Getting treatment for hearing loss likely will improve his physical, mental and emotional well-being, as well as decrease the risk of other health concerns that can develop due to untreated hearing loss. — Colin Driscoll, MD, Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.