‘Healthy Hearing’ Informational Campaigns Need to Happen and Soon
Commentary by Becky Tallent
The first time I saw a 20-something student wearing hearing aids in class, it surprised me. Not only was there one student, but two in the same class with adaptive equipment.
Full disclosure: I wear hearing aids and have for the past 20-plus years. Admittedly, it was embarrassing for me to get them in my late 40s. I felt ancient at first until I learned how much I was missing without them.
Of the two students, neither were complaining. They could hear and that was what was important.
What I have learned since then is more young people are needing hearing aids, that as many as 1.35 billion teens and young adults worldwide are at risk for hearing loss. Why? Research shows it is due to the use of earbuds, headphones and loud music in clubs and concerts.
Recent studies show that 24 to 48% of people ages 12 to 34 are listening at unsafe levels, resulting in experts calling for countries to prioritize safe listening. More disclosure: I lost my hearing after sitting in front of a drum amplifier at a rock concert.
As someone with a now-profound hearing loss, I have researched the reasons why hearing is important to overall health.
The most startling to me is research that shows people who refuse to use hearing aids are much more likely to develop cognitive problems, such as dementia. John’s Hopkins School of Medicine currently estimates only 15% of people who need hearing aids use them.
Johns Hopkins 2002-2007 longitudinal research of adults ages 75-84 shows loss of hearing can result in loss of brain function. The researchers considered other issues were also factored in, including diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes.
The results of the study showed people with hearing loss took 7.7 years to show a cognitive decline (loss of thinking abilities), while people with healthy hearing took 10.9 years. The study concluded people with unadjusted (no hearing aids) hearing loss can develop cognitive problems 30 to 40% faster than people with normal hearing.
In addition, the study showed social isolation, often a by-product of hearing loss, is one of the major factors for dementia.
Circling back to younger adults, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to see younger people with hearing loss might be facing cognitive decline faster than their peers if they do not use available technology.
Research published in the BMJ Public Health journal shows nearly 15 million people in the U.S. are living with untreated, disabling hearing loss, and is the third most common chronic condition in this country after high blood pressure and arthritis. This costs the U.S. roughly $133 billion annually.
Some people are born with hearing loss, about 2 or 3 out of every 1,000 children. Others lose their hearing due to heredity or environmental factors. While age is a normal factor for hearing loss, The National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders reports 13 percent or 30 million Americans ages 12 and older have hearing loss in both ears.
Thanks to new Food and Drug Administration rules lowering the costs of hearing devices, fewer people have that excuse not to buy them. Many people buy but stop using hearing aids because of headaches due to loudness in the first few weeks. I get it — it is a very boisterous world out there. The first two weeks of using a hearing aid can be miserable because the person is not used to all the noise.
But once the brain has adjusted to the noise? Priceless to the people who live with and around the person with hearing loss. Sometimes it is more for the people who share their lives than the person who has the loss because they do not have to shout or repeat themselves over (and over) again, so the hearing-impaired person understands.
This column isn’t asking for any government overreach, but rather an informational effort to help people understand how to protect their hearing. Hopefully, a campaign for healthy hearing will get off the ground soon and save younger people from severe hearing loss.
An award-winning journalist and public relation professional, Rebecca “Becky” Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. Tallent earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and her Educational Doctorate in Mass Communications from Oklahoma State University. She is of Cherokee descent and is a member of both the Native American Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She and her husband, Roger Saunders, live in Moscow, Idaho, with their two cats.