We must break the stigma that surrounds hearing loss. It is a matter of life and mind — your mind. Research shows that people with a mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia as those with normal hearing, and this risk increases with the severity of the hearing loss. Over a six-year study at Johns Hopkins, the cognitive abilities of older adults with hearing loss declined 30%-40% faster than in older adults whose hearing was normal and developed a significant impairment in their cognitive abilities 3.2 years sooner than those with typical hearing. Hearing loss is also associated with higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
WHO has hearing loss?
Hearing loss is not an isolated incident. Fifty million Americans have hearing loss today. This includes 1 in 5 teenagers, and 60% of our returning veterans from foreign wars. In fact, more people have hearing loss, than suffer from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autism and osteoporosis combined! Nevertheless, it does not seem to be a priority within the national healthcare dialogue. Maybe it is because hearing loss does not kill you. It is true that it is not fatal, but it can take away the quality of your life, through isolation, depression and the early onset of dementia, along with other health problems.
I am one of the many people in this country with hearing loss. My hearing loss is genetic and began in my mid 20s. It has gotten progressively worse since then. It took me 10 years to come out of my hearing loss closet, mostly because of the stigma that I felt was associated with hearing loss. My father hid his hearing loss due to stigma, and my mother was not supportive of my getting and wearing hearing aids for the same reason. In fact, it takes most people an average of seven years to get hearing aids once they have need of them. The delay is partly due to denial, but a big part of it is the stigma. This has to change.
WHAT is the stigma of hearing loss?
It is hard to figure out what the stigma of hearing loss is exactly. Are people with hearing loss old? Stupid? Ugly? Uncool? Not worth the extra time it takes to communicate with them? All of the above? While the exact nature of the stigma is not clear, many of us with hearing loss feel it, nonetheless. Of course none of the stigmas are true. People with hearing loss range in age from newborns to the elderly, and with the increase in noise pollution so prevalent today, many new cases of hearing loss are in teenagers.
I find the hearing loss stigma odd, since there is no detrimental view of wearing glasses, or using a wheelchair or other assistive devices. Perhaps it is because hearing loss is invisible, so that its presence is not obvious. This makes it easier for others to assume the person with hearing loss is stupid or rude when they respond inappropriately to a question, while the reality is that the person probably just didn’t hear what was said.
WHY is it important to break the stigma of hearing loss?
Due to the stigma, many people who could benefit from treating their hearing loss do not. The NIDCD states that among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30 percent) has ever used them. Even fewer adults aged 20 to 69 (approximately 16 percent) who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them. Given the serious health issues associated with untreated hearing loss, this needs to change.
Today’s laws contribute to the stigma of hearing loss. For example, glasses are covered by most health insurance providers in the United States, but hearing aids are not. This prevents many people from seeking treatment. Until hearing loss is recognized as a serious health issue and appropriate accommodations for those with hearing loss are made, the stigma will not fade and people with hearing loss will not seek the help that they need.
HOW can you help break the stigma of hearing loss?
- Get your hearing tested as part of your annual medical screening and encourage your friends and family to do the same.
- If you have hearing loss, treat it. Visit an audiologist to learn about hearing aids today or talk to your general practitioner.
- If you have hearing aids, wear them. It takes time to perfect the settings, but they do help.
- Speak up about your hearing loss. Being vocal about your own loss will gradually lower the stigma for others.
- Show that hearing is something to be valued. Protect your hearing and help others protect their hearing by offering earplugs or tuning down the volume.
- Appeal to your elected officials to make hearing loss an important part of the national health agenda.
Readers, do you feel the stigma?
Excerpted from an article in the November/December 2015 issue of Hearing Loss Magazine.