According to a 2011 survey by the AARP, by the time individuals reach 65 one in three suffers some hearing loss. And researchers think that at least 80 percent of people 80 years old and over have a significant level of hearing loss, much of it untreated. Why is this important if most Americans accept old-age hearing loss as inevitable and there's not much we can do about it?
A researcher at the Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science at the University of Colorado recently discovered that the area of the brain that is used for hearing may actually reorganize even in the earliest stages of age-related hearing loss. In almost all individuals the hearing areas of the brain shrink as we experience increasing hearing loss during the aging process. But as the hearing areas reorganize to help with better hearing acuity, the researcher found that this reorganization may happen at the expense of higher-level decision making capabilities, those abilities that enable us to carry out executive functions, such as balancing a checkbook or driving a car.
In healthy individuals, the centers of the brain that are typically used for higher-level decision making are also activated when hearing sounds. But in the case of hearing loss, the brain appears to change in order to better hear sounds, again at the expense of executive function capabilities. So as hearing continues to decrease, as in age-related hearing loss, the brain continues to compensate and older individuals become at risk of losing their ability to make the most appropriate decisions for their lives on a day-by-day basis.
What makes this an important finding is a change in decision-making abilities is one sign of several types of dementia and the theory is that if hearing loss is treated early and more aggressively, those areas of the brain available for higher-level functioning can be spared and left for executive-level decisions. And an important bonus is that treating hearing loss early can also help prevent falls in the elderly.
So what can an individual do to help themselves if they suspect impaired hearing? As difficult as it may be to acknowledge there could be hearing loss occurring, it's very important to get a hearing test done early and regularly as we age. If a fair amount of hearing loss is present on testing, PSAPs (personal sound amplification products) are available at a fraction of the cost of prescription hearing aids. The most expensive ones are about $500 each compared to prescription aids that start around $1,650. The FDA does not allow PSAPs to be marketed as devices to improve impaired hearing but the National Academy of Sciences and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have recently said that PSAPs can help some people with mild to moderate hearing loss. Both groups are calling for the FDA to allow PSAPs to be marketed as a way to address hearing loss.
As with hearing aids, the effectiveness of a PSAP can vary depending on the product. So it's always best to have a professional hearing test first and consider asking the audiologist or hearing-aid specialist for guidance in determining which device is right for your situation. Ignoring the problem of increased difficulty hearing people speak or the inability to distinguish voices or individual sounds in a noisy room won't make the problem go away. And letting hearing loss progress could very well put the brain at a disadvantage as it begins to compensate for impaired hearing at the cost of our ability to make appropriate decisions for our lives!