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What Happens if You Don’t Treat Hearing Loss?

Peter Lucier, HIS

If you’ve recently noticed a change in your hearing you may have some serious questions on your mind. For starters, you may be wondering if the difference you notice is serious enough to warrant a hearing exam. You may be worried you are detecting the first signs of hearing loss, but also may question how indicative a small hearing change could be. 

Or it may be the case that you recently saw your hearing specialist and learned that you have hearing loss. When considering treatment options, many people ask themselves “is treating hearing loss worth it?” After all, small changes in hearing often seem fairly easy to live with.

Unfortunately, all too many people find themselves in these situations and choose not to take the next step. Hearing loss is both incredibly common and widely undertreated in the United States despite the consequences not treating hearing loss can have for your health and wellness. 

Early Treatment Is Important

By delaying a trip to their hearing specialist or putting off treatment, people with hearing issues are likely to miss the stage of hearing loss where it is most effectively addressed and has the least impact on their life. Most permanent hearing loss is based on a gradual decline in our ability to hear. Our hearing thresholds worsen as we age as more cumulative damage is done to our hearing over the course of time. In the early stages of hearing loss, the signs of hearing difficulty can be subtle. However, noticing them and pursuing treatment allows you to preserve your hearing and curtail several serious health risks that are associated with untreated hearing loss. 

Untreated hearing loss not only worsens over time, it also changes the way your auditory system works with your brain to process sound. The more hearing loss has been allowed to progress, the more our healthy hearing patterns erode. These original hearing pathways are eventually lost. When treatment is eventually introduced, it may be difficult to adapt to hearing aids and other assistive devices. Many people find they must literally retrain the way they hear.

Waiting for hearing loss to become frustrating and limiting also, not surprisingly, makes treatment more difficult. 

Comorbidities For Untreated Hearing Loss

Perhaps the most serious consequences of untreated hearing loss are the prevalence of comorbidities, conditions that often occur in association with hearing loss. The comorbidities of hearing loss include health problems that can be devastating to a person’s physical, mental and social health. 

Failure to treat hearing loss can result in a steep decline in your quality of life. Untreated hearing loss can place limits on your ability to communicate with others, making it more difficult to feel understood as well as to understand. It also makes it more challenging and less enjoyable to engage socially, keep up at work and at school and navigate unfamiliar scenarios. Hearing loss can cause a withdrawal from our regular lifestyle and a retreat from interactions that have become frustrating. This change in behavior can be life altering and with limited hearing we set the stage for health problems like depression, anxiety and social isolation. 

We’ve already talked about how untreated hearing loss alters the way the brain processes sound. In addition to losing much of our original hearing patterns, hearing loss also creates mental stress by drawing focus away from other cognitive tasks. The mind prioritizes hearing so when hearing loss delivers incomplete sound signals to the brain, it automatically draws extra mental resources to the task. While extra attention is given to hearing, other cognitive tasks are under-resourced, such as our sense of balance. With a compromised bodily coordination, untreated hearing loss is also associated with increased falls and accidents.

The cognitive strain untreated hearing loss produces has other cognitive implications including a greatly increased risk of developing dementia. Dementia, marked by dramatic cognitive decline, is thought to be encouraged by the cognitive imbalance unaddressed hearing loss creates. With hearing loss generating mental stress and siphoning energy and resources, other cognitive functions begin to underperform, encouraging cognitive markers of dementia.

While comorbidities of untreated hearing loss are quite serious, there is some good news: treating hearing loss can help. Not only does treatment help you hear better it also lessens your health risks and improves your quality of life.