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The Unseen Consequences of Hearing Loss in the Elderly

elderly senior with hearing loss struggles to hear caregiver

While many people understand that hearing loss is a natural part of the aging process, few understand exactly how impactful this gradual process can be for the elderly. While hearing loss doesn’t manifest with physical symptoms like some other disabilities, it is no less painful or crippling for affected people. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t have any outward physical symptoms, few people respect the severity of the condition. This leaves elderly people who are suffering from hearing loss feeling forgotten and isolated. Luckily, we can mitigate these effects by being more aware of the effects hearing loss has on elderly people. Read on to learn more.

What is Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss is the gradual decline of the ability of the ear to detect noises. It occurs most often in senior individuals, although it can also be caused by disease or heredity.  The symptoms of hearing loss vary from mild to severe and can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life. Generally, the extent to which an individual’s life will be affected by the condition depends upon the following considerations:

  • The severity of the hearing loss
  • The pitches affected by hearing loss. For example, some hearing loss may affect pitches that don’t have a dramatic effect on a person’s ability to understand speech.
  • Which ear is affected by hearing loss, or if both ears are affected
  • The ability to detect and decipher human speech
  • Age

How Common is Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss is a common affliction. Roughly 17% of American adults report suffering from some degree of hearing loss. While hearing loss can occur in younger adults, it is much more common in seniors. While only 18% of Americans between the ages of 45-64 suffer from hearing loss, 47% of adults ages 75 and older have experienced hearing loss. Men are slightly more likely than women to suffer from hearing loss, although the following two types of hearing loss affect both sexes:

  • Sensorineural hearing loss: Sensorineural hearing loss is the result of damage that affects the auditory nerve or inner ear. While it can be temporary in rare cases, this hearing loss is often a permanent condition.
  • Conductive hearing loss: Conductive hearing loss is the result of sound waves that are unable to reach the inner portion of the ear. The is common in people suffering from earwax or fluid buildup or from punctured eardrums. This type of hearing loss is often reversible by surgery.

Once hearing loss has affected an individual, several unseen side effects can leave the senior in question feeling isolated, lonely, and depressed.

Five Common Side Effects of Hearing Loss

  1. Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a common side effect of hearing loss. Much like the way an amputated limb will ache or tingle, people who have suffered from hearing loss in one or both ears will often experience a clicking, buzzing, ringing, or hissing sound in their deaf ear. The sound can be loud or soft and can be constant or present only at intervals.

Tinnitus can accompany any hearing loss and is often a symptom of common medications like aspirin. In some cases, tinnitus can be the result of a blockage in the ear canal, like a piece of ear wax. While Tinnitus may be moderate or severe, it is often very frustrating to the affected individual and can lead to changes in mood and demeanor.

  1. Isolation

Imagine sitting in a room full of talking people and being unable to hear what any of them are saying. In addition to being frustrating, this would eventually become incredibly isolating and lonely. People suffering from advanced hearing loss have lost an essential connection to the world around them, which is difficult to cope with. While some seniors can regain a portion of their lost hearing through measures like hearing aids or sign language, being the only hearing loss-affected person in a room is a very lonely experience and the people around a senior affected by hearing loss should be considerate of this.

  1. Muddled hearing

Even if hearing loss has not rendered a person entirely deaf, it may make it difficult for a person to enjoy their previous quality of life. People affected by hearing loss often have a very hard time hearing voices among background noise in settings like restaurants or stores and may not be able to hear people who whisper or speak quietly. This, in turn, can lead to frustration and even anger. To counteract this, people may have to lean closer to a hearing loss-affected person to speak or may have to raise their voices to be heard.

  1. Loss of connection

People suffering from hearing loss may eventually begin to act like they can hear things around them, even though they can’t. While people who aren’t familiar with the hearing loss-affected person believe that the senior is engaging in a conversation, it’s likely that the senior feels disconnected and alone and is simply pretending to hear to avoid the embarrassment and frustration of asking people to repeat themselves constantly.

  1. Depression

Some adults who are suffering from profound hearing loss may begin to display depressive symptoms. In addition to changing a senior’s entire way of life, advanced or profound hearing loss can make it difficult to interact with friends, family, and doctors. This often makes seniors feel stupid, embarrassed, or abnormal and can plague them with feelings of inadequacy and depression. Even if hearing aids can help with the problem, seniors are often self-conscious about wearing hearing aids in public and may choose to continue feeling disconnected over displaying a physical token of their inability to hear. Because of this, depression is a very real risk for adults suffering from hearing loss.

Treatments for Hearing Loss

Depending upon the cause and extent of hearing loss, there are several treatments available. In some cases, surgery may reverse hearing loss that has been caused by infection or scar tissue. Alternately, hearing loss that is the result of an infection can often be treated through the administration of antibiotics. Hearing loss or severe tinnitus that results from medications may be reversed through an alteration of the medication schedule or medical treatment.

Unfortunately, many types of hearing loss are permanent and people affected by these will need to learn to function without perfect hearing. This may mean using a hearing aid – although only 1 out of every 5 eligible seniors use one on a regular basis – or it may mean taking advantage of the dozens of sound-enhancing technologies available on today’s televisions, headphones, and telephones.

While hearing loss is an unfortunate condition, it affects millions of seniors around the world. Families coping with a hearing loss-affected senior can provide assistance by being compassionate to the mental and emotional effects hearing loss has on a person and ensuring that they do everything possible to provide the affected person with the provisions they may need to hear better.