Untreated Hearing Loss in Adults - A Growing National Epidemic


According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 36 million Americans have a hearing loss - or 17% of our adult population. Incidence of hearing loss also increases with age: one third of Americans between ages 65 and 74 and nearly half of those over age 75 have hearing loss (NIDCD, 2010).

Unfortunately, only 20% of those individuals who might benefit from treatment actually seek help. Most tend to delay treatment until they cannot communicate even in the best of listening situations. On average, hearing aid users wait over 10 years after their initial diagnosis to be fit with their first set of hearing aids. (Davis, Smith, Ferguson, Stephens, & Gianopoulos, 2007).

People with hearing loss are often embarrassed because they think that they are different or that they have a rare condition. In truth:

  • Around 10% of the U.S. population report having difficulty with hearing (2004 MarkeTrak survey, betterhearing.org)
  • 3 in 10 people over age 60 have hearing loss
  • 1 in 6 baby boomers (ages 41-59), or 14.6% have a hearing problem
  • 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-40), or 7.4% already have hearing loss
  • At least 1.4 million children (18 or younger) have hearing problems
  • It is estimated that 3 in 1,000 infants are born with serious to profound hearing loss

Common Myths
Hearing loss affects only "old people" and is merely a sign of aging.
Actually it is the reverse of what most people think. The majority (65%) of people with hearing loss are younger than age 65. There are more than six million people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 44 with hearing loss, and nearly one and a half million are school age. Hearing loss affects all age groups. Hearing loss is not normal at any age!

If I had a hearing loss, my family doctor would have told me.
Not true! Only 13% of physicians routinely screen for hearing loss during a physical. Without special training, and an understanding of the nature of hearing loss, it may be difficult for your doctor to even realize that you have a hearing problem.

Emotional, Social and Physical Impact of Hearing Loss

"Loss of hearing is a serious life issue, a medical condition that is associated with physical, emotional, mental and social well-being. Depression, anxiety, emotional instability, phobias, withdrawal, isolation, lessened health status and lessened self esteem have all been linked to uncorrected hearing loss." (National Council on Aging: Untreated Hearing Loss Linked to Depression, Anxiety, Isolation in Seniors)

Hearing loss has been linked to feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration, social isolation, and fatigue. In general, hearing-impaired people who suffer from untreated hearing loss express less physical well-being than people with normal hearing and hard-of-hearing people who use hearing aids.

Hearing Loss is linked to dementia.

Studies show that adults with a mild hearing loss have nearly double the risk of developing dementia compared to those with normal hearing. The risk increases three-fold for those with moderate hearing loss, and five-fold for those with severe impairment.

Currently, over one in ten Americans over 70 is affected by some degree of dementia. Studies show that delaying onset by just one year would decrease the prevalence of dementia by more than 10%.

Hearing Loss is linked to depression.

Non-hearing aid users report more episodes of sadness and depression and more episodes of feeling tense, irritable or anxious. A study by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) survey found that significantly more of the seniors with untreated hearing loss reported feelings of sadness or depression that lasted two or more weeks during the previous years.

Depression in older adults is associated with decreased levels of functioning, worse health status, and reduced quality of life. It can also lead to disability in functioning and physical health. Older adults with depression are more likely to die, either because of worsening of physical disorders or by suicide (Reynolds and Kupfer, 1999).

Hearing loss is linked with three-fold increase in falling.

A new study led by a Johns Hopkins researcher suggests that hearing loss may also be a risk factor for another huge public health problem: falls.

The study found that people with a 25-decibel hearing loss - classified as mild - were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. Every additional 10-decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 1.4 fold. Among the possible explanations for the link is that people who can’t hear well might not have good awareness of their overall environment, making tripping and falling more likely.

“Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” Lin says. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.” (Release Date: 02/27/2012, Archives of Internal Medicine.)

Age-Related Hearing Loss is Insidious

"Hearing loss can be a disabling condition. Mild hearing loss can impair verbal language processing, thereby limiting meaningful communication and social connectivity. These disabilities impede health care access and use, with possible adverse consequences to health and survival." (Johns Hopkins University study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine)

Known as the invisible handicap, hearing loss is often perceived as benign, as it has no outward symptoms, no pain and a very gradual onset. Age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis, is generally a slow, progressive hearing loss that affects both ears. Because of its slow progression, adults with presbycusis do not readily accept hearing loss and treatment, considering it a normal sign of aging. As a result, too many wait years, even decades, before getting treatment.

However, hearing loss is not just an ailment of old age. It can strike at any time, even during childhood. For the young, a mild or moderate case of hearing loss could lead to difficulties in learning, developing speech, and in building the important interpersonal skills necessary to foster self-esteem and succeed in school and life.

Moreover, studies have linked untreated hearing loss to:

  • Irritability, negativism and anger
  • Fatigue, tension, stress and depression
  • Avoidance or withdrawal from social situations
  • Social rejection and loneliness
  • Reduced alertness and increased risk to personal safety
  • Impaired memory and ability to learn new tasks
  • Reduced job performance and earning power
  • Diminished psychological and overall health

Time and again, research demonstrates the considerable negative social, psychological, cognitive and health effects of untreated hearing loss. Those who have difficulty hearing can experience distorted and incomplete communication that severely impacts their professional and personal lives, leading to isolation and withdrawal.

Effect and Related Costs of Hearing Loss in the Workplace

Based on a NCOA report, 10 million Americans over the age of 64 have significant hearing loss. Most people with hearing loss have never sought treatment or used hearing aids for their hearing difficulties. Left untreated for several years, hearing loss can affect the quality of a person’s life.

Studies have linked untreated hearing loss to:

  • Irritability, negativism, anger, fatigue, tension, stress and depression
    • Job stress costs employers more than $200 billion each year in absenteeism, tardiness, burnout, workers compensation and medical insurance costs
    • Estimated 60% of all absenteeism from work is caused by stress
    • Aetna study showed those reporting the highest level of stress had medical costs nearly $2,000 higher than those reporting a low level of stress
  • Reduced alertness and increased risk to personal safety
  • Impaired memory and ability to learn new tasks
  • Reduced job performance and earning power
  • Diminished psychological and overall health

In a survey of more than 40,000 households utilizing the National Family Opinion panel, hearing loss was shown to negatively impact household income by up to $12,000 per year depending on the degree of hearing loss. According to another survey conducted by the Better Hearing Institute, more than 31 million Americans in non-institutional settings admit to a hearing loss. Only 37% are at retirement age.

Hearing is a critical sense for effective communication in the work force. Most employment situations require verbal communication in order to effectively engage in commerce and in dealing with the public; effective hearing is also critical to assure safety on the job. 10 million Americans have already suffered irreversible hearing damage from noise; 30 million are exposed to dangerous noise levels each day.

Occupations particularly under risk for hearing loss due to exposure to noise are as follows: firefighters, police officers, factory workers, farmers, construction workers, military personnel, heavy industry workers, musicians, entertainment industry professionals.