Hearing Loss: Causes, Protections and Treatments

Hearing loss is a problem for millions of aging boomers. What many people don’t know is that hearing loss is more than in inconvenience. Hearing loss increases the risk of developing dementia.

For expert advice on this topic I turned to Katherine Bouton, a former New York Times editor and author of “Shouting Won’t Help” as well as a new book called “Living Better with Hearing Loss.” Katherine has experienced progressive bilateral hearing loss since her thirties and has become the leading American advocate for people with this issue. She is also a popular popular blogger for AARP.

Katherine, what is the most common cause for hearing loss?

“Age is one factor. According to a 2011 AARP survey, by age 65 one in three people has hearing loss. Researchers think that 80 percent of those 80 and over have hearing loss. Most of it is untreated. More than half of those with hearing loss are under the age of 60, and 60 percent of those with hearing loss are still in the workforce.

“Noise is also a major cause of hearing loss and contributes to age-related hearing loss. Noise causes hearing loss, but it also damages the fragile hair cells which are then much more vulnerable to further noise damage and to aging.”

How much hearing loss usually indicates a need for hearing aids?

“Many audiologists think it’s important to treat hearing loss early. For instance, if you have trouble understanding speech in a noisy place like a restaurant that’s a good indication of early hearing loss. For most people, hearing loss worsens slowly and they may not even realize how serious it’s getting. The longer this loss is left untreated, the harder it may be to treat later on.”

How does hearing loss affect our brain?

"We hear with our brain, as researchers like to say. If certain areas of the brain are not being used for speech comprehension they will be taken over by other functions. Retraining the brain to hear again once you do get hearing aids can be hard work.

“Untreated hearing loss has serious health consequences. It leads to isolation and depression, which contribute to cognitive decline. It increases the risk of falls in the elderly, and there is a strong statistical link to dementia. The worse the hearing loss the earlier the onset and greater the severity of dementia.”

Related content: Talking About Hearing Loss to Someone Who Doesn’t want to Listen

What’s the biggest obstacle for treatment?

“For some, the biggest obstacle to hearing aids is cost. Hearing aids are not covered by insurance, including Medicare. Shop around for less expensive hearing aids. Make sure you go to an audiologist first to have your hearing tested, but if your hearing loss is a fairly straightforward age or noise-related loss, take that audiogram to Costco or Walmart where hearing aids are much less expensive. Be sure to get a package that includes return visits for adjustments. And don’t feel you have to keep the first hearing aid you try—by law there is at least a 30-day return policy.”

How can people best prevent hearing loss?

“The most important thing is hearing protection. If you are in a noisy environment like a football stadium or a concert, make sure to wear earplugs. Wear noise-canceling earphones when you mow the lawn or use a chainsaw. In places that are noisy but not deafening, use earplugs that let in sounds you want to hear but not dangerous noise. This is especially important for those who work in noisy environments. These earplugs are inexpensive and effective.

“Protect your hearing," Katherine said. "Once you lose it, you can never get it back.”

Thank you, Katherine Bouton, for helping us all better understand the importance of detecting and treating hearing loss early.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.