Most adults are in the habit of scheduling routine physicals, dental and eye exams, and cancer screenings appropriate to their age, heredity, and lifestyle. However, even the most health-conscious adults seem to have a blind spot when it comes to seeking or receiving hearing care. This oversight may seem shocking given the fact that hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States and is, according to the CDC, twice as prevalent as diabetes or cancer.
While barriers to seeking hearing care can be complex, the most common cause of skipped screenings is quite simple: most adults with hearing loss are unaware they have it. It is usually a condition that develops, sometimes as a symptom of an underlying illness, slowly over the years. Other barriers to making hearing care a priority include cost and social stigma.
Recommendations for Screening and Testing
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association suggests healthy adults be screened for hearing loss every ten years until age 50 and then every three years after that to ensure any measure of hearing loss is detected early. The most frequent causes of hearing loss are aging and excessive noise exposure, but conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure may also be at the root. Through further testing and a medical history review, a clinician can determine the cause of the hearing loss and advise on the best course of treatment. As early detection of hearing loss often leads to the best patient outcome, adults must adhere to screening guidelines and report any noticeable changes in hearing to their doctor or audiologist as soon as possible.
Weighing the Costs of Detection and Treatment
Another common barrier to seeking hearing health is the financial burden. Many health insurance plans require doctor referrals and related co-payments for a patient to access specialized hearing care. These costs, along with the lack of Medicare coverage for hearing aids, often make patients hesitant about pursuing hearing care even if they know it is in their best interest.
In these cases, primary care physicians should do their best to inform the patient about the health risks of untreated hearing loss. These possibilities include increased risk of dementia, depression, social isolation, and falls.
Furthermore, it may help patients to know that skipping hearing care for financial reasons now may end up costing them more for healthcare down the line. One recent study found that older persons with untreated hearing loss incurred much greater total healthcare expenses than those without the condition—an average of 46%, or $22,434 per person over ten years.
Shaking the Stigma
As hearing loss is closely associated with advanced age, older adults often do not seek care as they view hearing loss as a nuisance of aging rather than a serious medical condition. They may also believe that reliance on a hearing aid is stigmatizing.
Approximately 38 million Americans, including two-thirds of those over the age of 70, have hearing loss, but less than 20 percent of them wear hearing aids. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, people typically wait seven years on average before seeking assistance after recognizing they have a hearing loss.
By avoiding and delaying hearing care, seniors are not only in danger of jeopardizing their physical health but risk social and emotional isolation from what may be an already shrinking circle of family and friends. An audiologist can help older patients by fitting them with hearing aids and offering practical adjustments for socializing with hearing loss.
Coverage of untreated hearing loss's health risks will undoubtedly grow in healthcare settings and the popular discourse as it continues to be an important and evolving topic that affects the growing senior population. So, while adults have been putting hearing checks on the back burner for years, they may soon think twice about delaying their next screening, giving their hearing care the priority it deserves.
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